The relationship between art and politics is a perennial source of concern for artists and philosophers alike. This article discusses how three major philosophers address this relationship. It begins with Plato, moving onto Karl Marx’s theory of art and the concept of ‘commodity fetishism,” and concludes with a discussion of Adorno.
1. Plato on Art
The first treatment of the relationship between politics and art remains the most influential. It comes from Plato, and it is the discussion of art (above all poetry) in The Republic which we are concerned with here. A different account of art, which focuses less explicitly on its social-political dimension, can be found in Plato’s Ion, and this is a worthy point of comparison partly so that we don’t develop a shallow, one-dimensional conception of Plato as ‘against art.’
To be clear, Plato is (in certain ways) profoundly skeptical of the veneration of art, but there is nothing straightforward or un-caveated about his treatment of the subject. Even in The Republic, there is more nuance with respect to the value of art. Plato argues that art can be a powerful tool for shaping people’s beliefs and emotions and that it has the potential to either enhance or corrupt society.
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Plato distinguishes between two types of art: “imitative” art, which seeks to represent the physical world, and “creative” art, which involves the invention of new forms and ideas. He is particularly critical of imitative art, such as drama and poetry, which he sees as a form of deception. He argues that imitative art is inherently divorced from reality and that it encourages people to focus on superficial appearances rather than deeper truths.
All of this relates to Plato’s conception of politics and metaphysics as being deeply intertwined. Plato’s metaphysics—that is, his theory of things in general—is often referred to as the “Theory of the Forms.”
Appearance Vs Reality
In brief, Plato takes there to be a sharp distinction between how things appear to be and how they really are. To understand how things really are means to develop an appreciation for the ‘forms,’ which are general concepts instantiated in particular things (which are apparent).
Plato thinks that one of the things that makes it more difficult to appreciate the forms is our construction of alternative, persuasive fictional realities—that is the purvey of imitative art. And it is a failure to appreciate things as they really are that contributes to a self-degrading and inherently unstable public space. There are various reasons for this, but one such reason is that a failure to recognize that things are not as they appear results in a failure to recognize that certain people who have the appropriate training and temperament are objectively better placed to understand the world than others.
Plato’s preferred system is not democratic, unlike the Athens in which he lived. Imitative art can be dangerous because it can lead people to adopt false beliefs and values and can stir up irrational emotions such as anger, fear, and pity—more ‘seduction’ by the world of appearances. On the other hand, Plato sees creative art as a more positive force in society. He suggests that creative art has the potential to inspire people to seek out higher truths and to pursue the good. He also notes that creative art is a way of expressing the divine and that it can help people to connect with their spiritual nature. This is important in part because the spiritual health of a society cannot be conceived of as apart from the coherence and concord of a political body.
2. Marx and Commodity Fetishism
One of Marx’s key ideas was that art is a product of the economic system in which it is created. He believed that the dominant social and economic forces of a given society shape the art produced within it. Receptions of Marx’s conception of art have been greatly influenced by our understanding of commodity fetishism, one of the most enduring concepts within Marxism.
Commodity fetishism is the phenomenon whereby the social relations between people are obscured and appear as relationships between things or commodities. It is the process by which people assign value to objects rather than to the labor that goes into producing them.
Here we have to pay attention to the various senses of ‘value’ in Marx’s work. In capitalist societies, commodities are produced for exchange on the market rather than for their use value. This means that their value is determined not by the amount of labor put into them but by supply and demand on the market. As a result, the exchange value of a commodity becomes more important than its use value, and people begin to view commodities as having inherent value rather than as products of human labor.
Obviously, this description seems especially apt as a way of describing the value of art. A painting by a great painter is not valued at (say) $250 million because of the value of the materials or even because of the value of the labor that went into it. The same painter might have labored with just the same care and skill over a painting which, as it turns out, is valued much lower. Some value is being ascribed to the object in itself.
To the extent Marx has a critical view of art as a social force, it is in light of the idea of commodity fetishism. Marx argued that this process of fetishizing commodities leads to a situation where people are no longer aware of the social relationships that underpin their production and consumption. Workers are seen as mere producers of commodities rather than as individuals with social relationships and rights. Consumers are encouraged to view commodities as valuable in and of themselves rather than as the result of labor. This conception of things is a bulwark to existing systems of exploitation.
3. Adorno: Art and Ambiguity
Having said all of this about Marx’s theory of art, it is worth stressing that this is just one way of seeing certain material in Marx’s work. The last philosopher we will turn to is a Marxist who developed a somewhat different theory of the relationship between art and politics. That is Theodor Adorno, a 20th-century philosopher and member of the Frankfurt School.
It’s worth stressing that so much of what Adorno has to say about art and politics cannot be explained in a brief article. What follows is an attempt to give an impression of the kind of approach he takes in developing a Marxist appreciation of the ambiguous status of art in capitalism.
Adorno holds that the history of art is its development away from the social toward a more autonomous status. There is a self-consciousness within art about its independence from other forms of social activity. Yet, the development of a bourgeois monopoly on art has not precluded profound forms of social awareness in artistic practice. The novel is a more modern form than the chivalric poem, and yet the novel exhibits a far greater degree of social self-consciousness than the chivalric poem.
Social and Spiritual Dimensions
Of course, the bourgeois control of art limits art to the replication of a certain kind of society. Art generates its own rules of form, which constitute it apart from its material basis. The very idea of the ‘artistic’ form stands in opposition to the material. Art always has a spiritual dimension and is always potentially a tool of capitalist domination at the same time. However, art also makes no claim to utility and, in this sense, cuts against the prevailing strands of capitalist ideology, which holds that things must always have a purpose and that the ultimate basis of evaluation is ruthlessly utilitarian.
Adorno is repeatedly critical of what he calls the ‘culture industry,’ which is in no small part the transformation of art into a commodity in the sense explored above. Yet this is not the indispensable character of art. Marx himself presented art as existing even in spite of the absurd system of value constructed under capitalism—observing, for instance, Milton being paid dismally in spite of his objectively vast contribution to the development of poetry in English. For Adorno, and plausibly for Marx, art is sometimes—but not necessarily—a fetish-object, and so sometimes (but, again, not necessarily) an object that reinforces the present political system.