Since so many contemporary artists and writers are, are considered to be, or consider themselves to be some variety of Marxist (sometimes quasi-Marxist, pseudo-Marxist, faux-Marxist, or Marxist manqué), I thought it would be interesting to lay out Marx’s views on what Walter Benjamin called the artist as producer: the artist as cultural worker in the same way that someone laboring in a factory is an industrial worker. I don’t address Marx’s views on the content of literature or art, but rather focus on the Marxist structural analysis of the artist’s place in the relations of production, and the ideological penumbra which surrounds that position. In Marx’s words, “The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness” (A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy).
It should also go without saying that I don’t agree with all that’s laid out here. As I have written on many occasions, while social circumstances condition the production of art, they don’t determine its forms, its meaning, or its value, though those circumstances do inform these things. Art can and must exceed social circumstance and social determination, as Marx and Engels recognized (in wholly ideological terms) in their discussion of La Comédie Humaine: the work's accuracy and truth content made it socially progressive despite Balzac's reactionary, monarchist views. Whatever my reservations, I often find Marxist structural analysis both interesting and useful. I present it here for the sake of historical and intellectual perspective. I use the masculine pronoun throughout because Marx does.
Marx discusses the product of labor as the objectification of labor, which under the best of circumstances is the realization of the potentiality of the laborer and his productive capacities. As he puts it, human beings produce themselves through labor. In capitalist society, the worker is alienated from both the process and the product of his labor, working under conditions and at tasks not of his own choosing to create a product not of his own choosing which he does not own and which will not benefit him: the commodity. (Marx distinguishes between production to fulfill the needs of the producer and production in order to acquire the means to fulfill those needs.). Thus the realization of labor which should function as the fulfillment of his productive capacities functions for the worker as a loss of reality, for those capacities have been stolen from him. The object he produces, labor’s product, is “something alien…a power independent of the producer. The product of labor is labor which has been congealed in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labor. Labor’s realization is its objectification” (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844). All human capacities seek a fulfillment in the material world, but because the worker exercises his capacities as someone else (“I” is an other not just for Rimbaud), as the agent of the owner of the means of production, whose interests not only diverge from but contradict his own, this fulfillment is distorted. The object which the worker produces under these conditions, the commodity, is therefore the sign or, as Marx writes, the summary of the alienation of his labor activities.
Artistic production is a particular case of production in general. In modern Western society, at least since the Romantic period, the artist has been imagined as the prototype and ideal of the unalienated worker: he objectifies (that is, expresses) his productive capacities (that is, his “self,” his imagination or genius) directly and without constraint. If workers put their lives into the objects they produce, then their lives no longer belong to them but to those objects, because they neither own nor choose to produce those objects. But for the artist, who chooses both the means and the result of his own production, his art is a fulfillment of his productive capacities, because both the impulse and the product of his labor are his own. Man exists as a productive being: thus, the artist’s life is his own. As Marx writes in The German Ideology, “As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production.”
The ideology of genius expresses this idea of the artist’s free and autonomous production. The artist is exempt from the pressures of productive life. His labor activity derives from some transcendent yet uniquely individual source, wholly personal in origin yet universal in the significance of its outcome, the artwork which is both the product of the artist’s labor as cultural worker and the tangible manifestation of his spiritual freedom (that is, of his free command over his own productive capacities). Whereas for the ordinary worker his labor is external to himself, the artist’s labor is uniquely his own. The worker denies himself in his labor; the artist affirms himself in his. The artist’s labor is not just the means to satisfy a need, but is itself the satisfaction of a need.
But because capitalist society cannot conceive of genuinely unforced labor, the artist’s labor has been conceived of as at being the service of a “genius” external and superior to him, whose necessity is his freedom. (We find this conception in Hegel, whose calls this transcendent force finding immanent form Geist, spirit.) To slightly twist a formulation of Marx’s, just as in religion “the spontaneous activity of the human imagination…operates independently of the individual—that is, operates on him as an alien, divine, or diabolical activity—in the same way the [artist’s] activity is not his spontaneous activity. It belongs to another [not, in this case, to the capitalist, but to the Muse, the daimon, the inspiration upon which the artist depends]; it is the loss of self” (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844). In the ideology of genius, the artist loses himself in his possession by his own genius, which is both intrinsic to him and alien to him. The artist’s uniqueness depends on a mystified refusal of his generality, as well as on a kind of willed self-alienation intended to stave off the imposed alienation of capitalist society. It is a special case of the isolation and atomization of the individual in capitalist society.
Paradoxically, this idea of the free artist was dependent upon the development of the free market: that is, of an economy based on money exchange rather than on what Marx rather idealistically refers to as “natural” relations of production and exchange, in which there is a direct relation between production and consumption (that is, needs). Under feudalism, the artist was explicitly the agent and objectifier of a social vision: his relation to the ideology of which he was both servant and creator, as enacted in his relation to a patron either aristocratic or clerical (and often both), was both direct and unforced. His place in the relations of production and its accompanying social arrangements was represented without mediation or mystification.
The modern idea of the artist depends on the shift in this relation from one to an individual patron to one with the market in general, in which the artwork is in competition not only with other artworks but with other forms of cultural production. The idea of genius can thus be read as a technique of advertising and publicity, a means by which a particular artist and those who invest in his work (the employers who derive surplus value from his labor in the form of profit as the artwork “appreciates” in value) differentiate this product both generally (as “art”) and specifically (from other artworks) from other products on the cultural market. It also serves as a replacement guarantor of value for his activities as they become more marginal to society’s ideological self-constitution.
The artist thus maintains a precarious link to the activity and product of his labor by emphasizing and deepening (both as a form of promotion and as a mode of distinguishing his labor activity from that of the ordinary worker) his alienation both from society (given that in capitalist society one’s place in the division of labor is one’s social and thus one’s individual definition) and from general human powers. Hence the definition of art as an activity and an object depends upon its clear demarcation from all other human activities, including all those others in which the artist, as a social being, inevitably participates. The artist expresses his true self only through the occlusion of himself as a social being.