Reflections on the purpose of art: a left perspective

"The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it."

The 11Th Thesis on Feuerbach

There is a reason why this thesis by Karl Marx is engraved on his tombstone in London: with it, Marx expressed his desire for philosophy not to shy away from reflecting on social problems and the historical context that created them; with it, we could say, he changed the course of philosophical investigation. Reasoning, thinking, and mental activity that leads to working out ideas and concepts arise directly from human behaviour and action, which is inseparable from the material conditions of life. And not the other way around. Marx, thus, encouraged sustaining philosophy, politics, law, morality, religion, metaphysics – in other words, all spheres that relate to the "production" of language and consciousness – as transparent languages of the real world, instead of forming alternative worlds from whose standpoint we could explain the real one.

How might this thesis be applied to art? What were Marx’s views on art? How were his ideas developed by the neo-Marxists? What, according to the thinkers of the Left, is the purpose of art and what is its relation with reality?

I begin with the question of why there is no unitary left-wing theory of art.

The reason why a "Marxist" theory of art was never formed lies first and foremost in Marx’s fascination with ancient Greek art and in his inability to explain how such perfect art could have been produced in such an imperfect (slave-owning) society. The idea of classical art, which was once already realized in the previous historical moment, conflicted with Marx’s evolutionary understanding of history and with his assumption that the cultural superstructure must be determined by the economic base. The history of art testifies to something different: feudal oppression and capitalist exploitation were not adverse to the creation of perfect works of art; furthermore, a more developed society actually moved away from the standards of classical art. Conclusion? True art is not socially conditioned. Like Immanuel Kant, Marx saw art in terms of disinterested aesthetic experience that lead to contemplation and gave delight. When art had other aims (for example, social) it was threatened with the loss of its essence. These conclusions were probably encouraged by examples of ecclesiastic art, where he perceived just another form of ideology: another means by which priests and kings aimed to keep people under their rule. For these reasons, according to Otto Karl Werckmeister, it is difficult to imagine art of the emancipated future society, because in the definition of art there already lies an assumption that art is not conditioned by social organization or function. Instead, we can only talk of the "artistic production" which has nothing to do with true art and which is subject to historical critique (and, because of this, betraying the doctrines of aesthetic philosophy).

Thus, artistic activity for Marx is a fundamental human activity, free from socially determined function. If everyone could actively express themselves as artists and without, in addition, committing themselves to this one activity only, that would be something like the aesthetic condition of free individuals (as imagined by Schiller and Kant). But, because of the inevitable integration of artistic activity in society, the content and the purpose of art becomes difficult to predict. The danger of entanglement with social goals (that is, of becoming ideological) is great. Paradoxical as it is, according to Werckmeister, Marx turned the "aesthetic condition" – anthropological construction of ideal aesthetics – into a vision of materialist utopia in historical future, unavoidably relying on the idea that art has a purpose in society and it gives social benefits. [1]

Marx’s claim that art which is dependent on material production becomes a form of ideology was received with opposition, especially the second part of this statement.[2] It was easier to deal with the first part for it was impossible to deny that great art was created under capitalism; but one could claim that no true artist took this social order as a norm. The reason is that true art reflects what capitalism represses in people, so it must remain critical of capitalism. But the second part of the problem – the ideological side of art – required a more complex solution.

Herbert Marcuse, a theoretician of the neo-Marxist Frankfurt school, contributed significantly to the solution of Marx’s problem of ideology and art. He remained faithful to the idea of art as disinterested aesthetical experience and with his new and bright reflections dispelled the opposition between art and its relation to everyday human existence.

The solution to Marx’s dilemma could be shortly summed up as follows: Marcuse attributed to art a fundamental human characteristic of transcending the ideological limits of a class for which that art is produced. Art, as part of the superstructure, can free itself from the base! Thus, Marcuse thought that art generated the consciousness for change even before this change could happen in material reality. As a theoretician of cultural revolution, he saw art and culture as playing an important role in forming the dominating powers and in generating opportunities for emancipation.[3] Cultural revolution, according to Marcuse, is a completed revolution, meaning that it aims for radical change in the material conditions of human life and in the political culture by appealing not only to consciousness but also to sensibility, to spiritual needs of humanity. Cultural revolution fights for the liberation of emotions and imagination as the necessary condition to create a free society.[4]

We can righty say that Marcuse believed in the power of art to change the world or, even more, to create a new world! On the other hand, he thought that only by being faithful to itself can art fulfil its unique mission. How should we understand this?

One of the functions of art, according to Marcuse, is to provide spiritual tranquillity to humanity; and this is inseparable from… real struggles! (Only in this way can one contribute to bringing peace.) Art cannot be powerless, it must say "no!" to an unjust world, reflect truth and seek to correct the image of the world. Marcuse saw examples of powerless art both in traditional art which remained conformist and did not honour the real world and in the examples of "socialist realism" that showed nothing else but the submission of art to the political regime.[5] Even before becoming a neo-Marxist[6], he criticised the inclination of romantic artists to escape everyday realities and create ideal phantasy worlds and the romantic belief that being an artist is the highest form of human reality. Both of these things prevent artists from returning to history and everyday life. How pathetic are those artists who, aiming only at aesthetic charms, are imprisoned in their egocentricity and forced to live only as "artists" and "creators of beautiful things".[7] When the life of artists "only has meaning and value when it is seen through the medium of art" , something very important remains unrealised in their art: their humanity.[8]

It is understandable that an artist, by objectifying her emotions and desires, seeks to realize them in the world. There are two choices: either to form reality according to your ideals, thus breaking through the artistic alienation; or to seek shelter in the world of illusions. Marcuse believed in the first choice and the power to overcome the contradiction between artistic life and everyday existence. But this overcoming is possible only by integrating an artist into the human and natural world, by taking root in the immediate "here and now". In this way, the aesthetic becomes more than merely "aesthetic".[9]

Aesthetics creates order: it curbs matter, gives form to feeling, encourages empathy, directs thought, and, finally, gives form to existence. Order is a respite, reconciliation, the flourishing of humanness. Order is impossible without justice. Marcuse does not talk about some never-heard-of sophisticated matters, his philosophy is lucid, it speaks the language of this world. It is more than merely "aesthetic" (to use Marcuse’s phrase), and this changes completely the meaning of common words. 

It is clear that Marcuse enthusiastically believed in the ideal of merging art and life and overcoming of artistic alienation by integration into harmonious human community. However, he did not deny that bourgeois society in its development created new forms of alienation that made both demands hardly possible. For this reason, he was sympathetic to artists who refused "integration" (the enemies of emancipation!) and also supported artistic subcultures (as manifestations of new social order!) that he saw as heralds of social change.[10] With their non-conformist ways of life and with their works, these artists serve life by waking people up to fight for social change. Artist, as a practising human being, as a political and social agent, is not an oxymoron.

How did Marcuse manage to reconcile the principle of idealist aesthetics with the artistic mission and the purpose of art in the world? Artistic alienation and potential insubordination of art to the dominant powers of the world was seen by Marcuse as an alternative field of ideas and sensations that created new perceptions, new imagination and consciousness for the possible future world. Artistic activity provides conditions for critical distancing from what currently exists and it creates space and tools with which to draw the image of a new world, a more beautiful and more just world. Artistic alienation (as a diagnosis of a qualitative difference between freedom and established order) is not an end in itself: it seeks creativity that surpasses itself. But art is an end in itself and the work of art is self-sufficient. Because of this, it disturbs, it consoles, it reconciles with life and calls to fight against that which oppresses and destroys life. In other words, art does not have to have a purpose in this world, because its purpose is to lead people to another world which is yet to come. Creating a new world is the purpose of art:

For art itself can never become political without destroying itself, without violating its own essence, without abdicating itself. The contents and forms of art are never those of direct action, they are always only the language, images, and sounds of a world not yet in existence. Art can preserve the hope for and the memory of such a world only when it remains itself. Today that means: no longer the great representational, reconciling, purifying art of the past, which is no longer any match for contemporary reality and is condemned to the museum, but instead the uncompromising rejection of illusion, the repudiation of the pact with the status quo, the liberation of consciousness, imagination, perception, and language from its mutilation in the prevailing order.[11]

But how could art (non-material culture) have a real purpose in this world (to become a material force, a force of real change) without denying its nature? Marcuse calls art a stylised reality, a negated, negative reality. The truth of art is different from the truth of conceptual thinking, philosophy, or science that also change reality in their way. Beauty, as the essential quality of art, belongs to the sphere of non-repressed sublimation and it manifests itself as a free formation of material for the senses; in other words, as a sensual embodiment of the idea itself.[12] Internally and externally experienced sensitivity is an element of art, of aesthetics. Art appeals at first not to thought, but to senses. Art can destroy the status quo of reality and remain similar to it, without coinciding with its things or structures, but by proclaiming truth and a possible reality only by this "mere resemblance". Creativity, as overcoming of artistic alienation, encourages overcoming alienation in real life – it brings back to the people their trust in the importance of their feelings, understanding, and actions in the world. According to Paul Ricoeur, overcoming of alienation that arose under conditions of capitalism should manifest itself in the triumph of human responsibility against the dehumanizing mechanisms of power and in embracing the role of the master of history.[13] In the road from self-negation to responsibility for our history, the role of art is very important:

[artistic] imagination creates […] new objects in both language and images: an environment in which humans and nature are liberated from reification and domination. As a result, it ceases to be merely imagination; it creates a new world. The power of knowing, seeing, hearing, which is limited, repressed and falsified in reality, becomes in art the power of truth and liberation.[14]

Marcuse calls to defend the aesthetic idea of reality from ridicule that it might provoke. Looking from the contemporary point of view, it is not the fear of being ridiculed for believing in a utopian mission of art that restrains the artistic impulses. Belief in the future in general – not just in a possible better future – has become difficult to sustain. But Marcuse has something to say in this case as well. His answer is: if art cannot withstand reality, however cruel it may be, if it does not look for an escape route, such art is useless. That is how he reacts to the question "is it possible to write poetry after Auschwitz"?

The most beautiful and tender image of artistic activity has touched me through a film: Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. It is a story about the Holocaust, but also about Jews in Warsaw ghetto. Hungry, sick people. Empty homes, bodies in the streets, no more energy to bury them… No hope, no future, so it seems… But the communal theatre is active till the very end, while there is still someone alive: they sing, dance, and tell stories…

Truly, Shoah and that ghetto theatre still continue changing the world… 


  1. Werckmeister, Otto Karl. “Marx on ideology and art.“ New Literary History 4.3 (1973): 501–519, p. 507.
  2. Ibid. 510-511
  3. Marcuse, Herbert. Art and Liberation: collected papers of Herbert Marcuse. Vol. 4. London and New York: Routledge, 2007, p. 1.
  4. Ibid.152
  5. Ibid. 124.
  6. Marcuse studied German literature, philosophy and economics in Berlin and Freiburg where he defended his PhD thesis on German novels in which main protagonists where artists (see Kęstas Kirtiklis „Baigiamasis žodis“ in Marcuse, Herbert. Vienmatis žmogus. Vilnius: Kitos knygos, 2014).
  7. Marcuse, Herbert. Art and Liberation. Vol. 4, p. 14.
  8. It is worth mentioning the critique of burgeois art by other members of Frankfurt school, Horkheimer and Adorno, who claim that its principle of idealistic aesthetic – purposiveness without a purpose – is subverted into purposlessness instead of market dictated purpose. 
  9. Marcuse, Herbert. Art and Liberation. Vol. 4, p. 129.
  10. Ibid. 14
  11. Ibid. 129.
  12. Ibid. 125-126.
  13. Ricoeur, Paul. Political and social essays. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1975, p. 240.
  14. Marcuse, Herbert. Art and Liberation. Vol. 4, p. 125.

Originally published at:
Lūžis 1/2020, the magazine of DEMOS Institute of Critical Thought