Art can be understood as how we express ourselves, translating experiences, desires, emotions, and knowledge into concrete images, sounds, and so forth. All humans are artists and we all have a hint of creative spark within us. Marx noted that the fiction of his time had presented a greater image of truth than any politician. Marx recognized that reality and truth often does in fact lie within art, and because it appeals to our emotions and values on such high levels it becomes very concrete to us. In Dreiser’s American Tragedy, the illusions and oversimplifications of petty-bourgeois culture are presented in a form that is more directly influential to the people than any work of Marxist literature for example. Although Marxism is a science, it is aware of the value of artistry as one of the most rewarding experiences of human life. If Marxism is a social system dedicated to achieving freedom and the increased well-being of society, it is without doubt that Marxism must allow artistic progress to be made.
Historically speaking, Marxists often wished to use art as a method of deviating from bourgeois cultural limitations; arbitrary, strict, and grounded in reactionary overtones. The sense of “logic” of bourgeois capitalist society is what fetishizes notions of reckless exploitation. Dadaists and Surrealists in particular rejected the rigid conformity capitalism had created over art, and deviated from the mainstream in order to “shock the bourgeoisie,” and to better promote culture, class consciousness, and humanity. Many of the Dadaists, Surrealists, members of the avant-garde and Fluxus movement were anarchists or socialists who rejected capitalist logic in favor of the abstract. Grosz noted his art was done as protest against the world of mutual destruction.
In capitalism, in order to succeed artistically in the popular realm, the artist is reduced to producing “cheap thrills” and is alienated from his art by a society which has reduced its cultural productions to the reproductions of marketable commodity fetishism. As a result, movies become nothing but cheap remakes riddled with sex scenes, books become nothing but rip-offs and all true expression is forgotten or discarded for what is convenient and profitable. In capitalism’s culture, unique expressions are discouraged in the favor of what is safe, reliable and sufficient for making money for those corporations that profit off of artistic expressions. Ultimately, art becomes reflective of the bourgeoisie themselves. For example, bourgeois movies will be the same tired plot constantly: here is a threat to the established social order, which is assumed to be the one and only social order, and some ridiculous hero comes along and saves society from collapse.
The hegemony of bourgeois art in capitalist society comes as no surprise. Art that serves the interests of the owners of society, their profit aims and their ideological dominance, is naturally rewarded while the art of the proletariat is dismissed, scoffed at and seen as threatening. Class struggle is pervasive in all fields of human life. The struggle between the art of the workers, with its spirit of emphasizing what is powerful and beautiful in their production, is ultimately compelled to oppose the art that fetishizes the surreal, the illusory and that which seeks to alienate the artist from the reality of progress, of human interdependence and the health of society. In capitalism, “artist” is a profession determined by how much your work can be sold for. The “professional” artist is one who conforms to popular notions of what art is.
The reality is that every one of us is an artist. We produce everyday splendors with our blood, sweat and tears; we build a physical and social world that is unparalleled in its beauty and complexity. In socialism, that art which shows this natural beauty will be emphasized, while in capitalism, such beauty is ignored, obscured or otherwise marred by sickly-post modernist expressions that seek for the artist and onlooker to look away from the art that we all make together. Artistic expression is not “free” in capitalism. It is subjected to the domination of influences which would see the true art of human production enslaved by the bonds of bourgeois ideology. To resist, we must reach beyond the commonly accepted self-effacing art for one which has its origins in our own production and respects the work of every worker as an art in and of itself.