Marxist scholars agree that ‘art’ in its various forms and media is an important component of culture in so far as it is used in the transmission and communication of cultural symbols and representations in any given society. Art thereby both reinforces and at the same time introduces changes to the manner by which cultural representations are created or recreated, preserved, adapted, and transferred. For instance, art reflects existing gender roles and symbolisms, taboos, customs, and traditions, and even biases in visual and representative forms such as dances, songs, drama, theater, and other forms of artistic media. Gramsci (1971) likewise notes that even the working class engage in “some form of intellectual activity” and that each individual may be considered “a philosopher, an artist, a man of taste” who “participates in a particular conception of the world,” is conscious of morality, and is a contributor to the birth and rebirth of ideas and thoughts. (Gramsci 8-9)
However, it is also argued that artistic expressions, being an inextricable part of a culture that is prevailed upon by certain economic interests, is therefore also subject to it. (Bordieu 1) Hence, ‘art for art’s sake’ is a myth in any society where the prevailing social relations is that of the oppressor and oppressed, since the former as the owner of the forces of production controls not only the means for economic production but even the production of ideas, beliefs, and consciousness in society. (Marx and Engels, 64) Thus, the function of art is not only limited in its aesthetic value but also in how it is used by the dominant or ruling class to perpetuate itself and its control over other classes.
While such a view of art has come under tremendous attack from both scholars and artists themselves who are wont to deny that they are influenced by things other than their muses, it is worth noting how the definition, production, and distribution of art and its relationship with its audience evolved and developed with the historical development of societies. The relationship between the economic order and the resulting political and cultural structure was first developed by Karl Marx based on Feuerbach’s theses on materialism. Marx argues that the “mode of production of material life conditions the social, political, and intellectual life-process” of societies. (Marx 5)
That the social, political, and intellectual aspects of societies were grounded on, and changed with, the economic aspect precluded that the concept and practice of art underwent changes with the changes in the economic and political structure of societies. For instance, although the concept of ‘art’ and ‘artists’ was not yet present during the primitive-communal period when human beings first learned to create images on stones and cave walls, the absence of this concept was not because people did not yet know its significance, but because it was considered a realm where anyone and anybody could freely participate. There was no segregation yet between what Marx and Engels call ‘mental’ and ‘manual’ producers, and this same arrangements may be seen in egalitarian societies of indigenous people and tribes who have not yet been exposed to the trappings of the ‘modern’ world. In this context, the absence of a dominant class and interest allowed art to be a communal and collective expression; the absence of the concept of private property made art free and more independent in so far as there was no notion of the opposite.
On the other hand, the development of socially stratified or class societies also created the division of labor, wherein “one part appears as the thinkers of the class” and the other as the material producers (Marx and Engels, 64), which gave birth to the group of artists and intellectuals whose main role in society was the production and propagation of ideas (Gramsci 5). Except perhaps for a few exceptions, ‘artists’—in this sense those whose main occupation was the creation of ‘art’—rose from the privileged class, not from the class of slaves or peasants whose lives were spent in tedious service to their masters, and its purpose was mainly to satisfy the need of the privileged for things of ‘beauty’ which reflected the landed class’ extravagant lifestyles and the dominance of religious beliefs.
Thus, the standards by which society defines what is art and what is not is based upon the prevailing criteria set upon by the privileged class who are its ‘patrons.’ By the possession of economic power, the elite sectors of society are able to dictate and control how ‘art’ is produced, reproduced, and consumed. (Bordieu 1) This led to the invention of the concept of ‘high art’ during the feudal era which was the aristocracy’s way of differentiating their taste from the ‘vulgar’ taste of the peasant class. (Bordieu 5) In order to be classified as art, a certain work must conform to the prevailing concepts of beauty, perfection, and pedigree held, of course, by its very limited audience from the aristocracy and feudal lords. It is not surprising that most of the cultural artifacts of this period were paintings depicting religious figures and themes, and this is seen in the Eastern as in the Western parts of the world.
With the rise of capitalism and the bourgeois class, the concept of art evolved from the aristocratic notion of ‘art for art’s sake’ into ‘art for profit.’ Indeed, the rise of popular culture that was made possible by mass production entailed that ‘art’ may now be consumed by anyone who can pay the right price. The proliferation of art, however, does not mean that all have equal access to its control and production. While the claim of capitalism is that anyone can be an artist, it doesn’t mean that ‘art’ is now free from class interests. Unfortunately, the pressure of making money and ambitions of fame basically curtail the very artistic nature of the artist itself, forcing him or her to conform to the tastes of his or her consumers, by which it becomes a commodity. Indeed, the boundaries between popular culture and ‘art’ have been blurred in capitalist hegemony by warping the very concept of art into one that is produced to be sold for profit.
The main characteristic of art in a capitalist society thus, is standardization. Adorno (1941) illustrated this phenomena in his investigation of the nature and characteristics of popular music as opposed to ‘serious’ music wherein he noted how “the whole structure of popular music is standardized, even where the attempt is made to circumvent standization.” (Adorno 73) This standardization, according to Adorno, ensured that popular music met two demands: the first being the need to “provoke the listener’s attention” and the second for the material to conform to “natural music” or the “sum total of all the conventions and material formulas in music” to which the listener is accustomed to.
Whereas ‘art’ is supposedly made available and ‘high’ culture is deemed abolished, in truth access to, and ability to engage in, art production remains exclusive to the elite. Indeed, Bordieu (1984) notes that “a work of art has meaning and interest only for someone who possesses the cultural competence,” (Bordieu 5) so cultural competence will also be a requirement for the creation of a work of art. The realm of art production therefore remains at the control of the elite, who impose the norms and decide what should constitute art, what is appropriate for perception and consumption, and who should be able to perceive and consume it. (Bordieu 6)
Instead, the masses are offered ‘art’ which are seen to be their equivalent in what Bordieu (1984) categorizes as their ‘taste’ which is composed by the very kind of art that Adorno (1941) deplores to be standardized. Popular culture, like popular music, accomplishes two demands—the ability to make the masses believe that they have access to the same things enjoyed by the ruling class, which constructs the myth of equality with which they are deluded and appeased; and second, it enables the ruling class to prevent the violent confrontation of the struggle of the ‘ruled’ by setting the conventions by which the ‘ruled’ must learn to conform. While being denied of the ability to create their own art, the masses are also denied of the ability to create their own culture, to be galvanized as a class able to carry its own agenda based on its collective experience as a class, and the ruling class is kept safe from a revolution. At all times and periods, therefore, art itself also functions as a special apparatus of dominance. Art likewise is not a neutral activity since the elite, by their economic power, still have the very ability to appropriate cultural representations and symbolisms for their ends—which is the preservation of the existing socio-economic order.
In the final analysis, artists have all the right to revolt; As Marx himself might have said, “Artists of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains and your art to (re)gain.”