Art and literature, in the Marxist’s eye, are reflections of the social institutions from which they originate. They offer a mediated understanding of the world in which they were written, and using them we can learn about how social forces interact to construct artistic and literary movements. At the same time, these forces shape the structure of the market and state – that is, the economic and political world surrounding each piece of literature.

Capitalism and anarchy

Karl Marx writes “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” – and art, as many believe, is the product of these struggles. Therefore, as many artists’ work arises from discontent among the ‘proletariat’, art itself is an intrinsically capitalist thing. For this reason, the hard left criticised the great artists, and in their attempts to replace social order with a classless world, created a new art movement of their own: Dada.

dada-print-hasardHowever, it would seem a huge injustice to label Dada as merely an ‘art movement’ – it totally undermined all artistic history, taking order and replacing it with anarchy and chaos. Inspired by waves of revolution against the capitalist social structure, it took cultural identities and parodied them, deliberately creating pieces that were meaningless and required no skill. At the same time, Vladimir Lenin was rallying support for a communist revolution in Russia. Due to mass malcontent and popular uprising, there were huge ideological shifts, giving rise to anarchism in art and politics.

Immortalised in stone

The Dada movement, albeit a huge change in the way art was viewed, lacked any artistic talent. If the artist called it art, then it was art. Despite bringing an advance in understanding, the pioneers of Dada erased the purpose of art – it was no longer a product of social discontent, and no longer acted as a memory of the cultural ideologies that manifested in society at the time. Dadaism encouraged the destruction of historical masterpieces, as they conflicted with the hard-left political agenda often associated with the movement. While this was happening, Leninism brought about similar changes in the structure of the market in Russia. This is where the revolutionaries fell short.

“An artist is the magician put among men to gratify their urge for immortality”

The great artists, writers and composers throughout time have achieved immortality through their work, and stand as legendary historical figures. Hundreds of years later we stand enriched by their paintings, sonnets and symphonies – without them our levels of understanding of the world would be from testimony and empiricism, greatly reducing our cultural horizons.

Art and revolution

We need only look at art and literature throughout history to realise the power it has as social criticism – take Shakespeare, for example. His Coriolanus provided a parallel with the Jacobean social hierarchy, mimicking and exposing the flaws in the English judicial system. Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi acts in a similar way, parodying the English court. For this reason, works of art must stand alone as commentators on the social world from which they were born, so that our future selves can look back on them and learn. Anarchy and revolution are necessary for social change, and to improve the human condition. But when we let art and revolution mix – which is what Dada did – their purposes become intertwined and confused. As Tom Stoppard writes in his Travesties:

“You’re either a revolutionary or you’re not, and if you’re not you might as well be an artist as anything else. If you can’t be an artist, you might as well be a revolutionary

Contributed by Greg Tucker, Economics Editor

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