Why art matters: creativity and labour in capitalist society

Issue: 170

Nicola Field

A review of John Molyneux, The Dialectics of Art, Haymarket (2020), £17.99

This complex yet vivid and accessible book is an eagerly awaited contribution to debates about the social meaning and revolutionary possibilities of art. It represents a significant advance in the application of the Marxist method to the field of artistic production. The principal focus is on fine art and visual art, but the ideas it contains are relevant to other forms of art and creative practice. For those who want to discover how Marxism illuminates the totality—and the contradictions—of human experience, it offers a compelling consideration of art in the capitalist era.

Socialist activist John Molyneux has written many previous books on a range of political topics and is a longstanding contributor to this journal. He now lives in Dublin, where he is a member of socialist People Before Profit formation, but he previously taught art history at the University of Portsmouth, and The Dialectics of Art is the culmination of several decades writing and lecturing about art. The exhibition reviews and analytical chapters on specific artists, of which the middle section of the book is comprised, have been published before, some of them in this journal. However, these are bookended by four new pivotal, provocative chapters, making up about half the book, which ask, “What is art?”, “How do we judge art?” and “How does art develop?”, and which explore what John calls “the dialectics of modernism”. Issues of the representation of gender, sexuality and class, which are explored in the older articles, acquire a new force when read in the light of these new chapters.

Some Marxists, and I am one of them, find reading theory hard. Thankfully, John’s writing has a lucid, narrative style, packed with clear examples, even as it maintains a high level of academic rigour. Because it is a tour de force, every reader will be sure to have their own “eureka” moments, and so I hope no one will use any review as a substitute for reading the book itself.

For anyone coming to John’s writing on art for the first time, I recommend the chapters on Michelangelo and Rembrandt (with a laptop on hand to look up the pictures) for a grounding in his materialist and historical approach. John’s emotional, social and political engagement is particularly well expressed in his discussion of Rembrandt’s representation of women. For instance, he contrasts Botticelli, Tintoretto, Peter Rubens and Diego Velázquez—precursors and contemporaries of Rembrandt, whose paintings of women objectified female bodies from the perspective of the “male gaze”—with Rembrandt’s “Bathsheba” thus:

There is the expression on her face…an air of deep sadness and resignation entirely appropriate to the situation. There is the peculiarity of her slightly overlong left arm…expressive of heaviness and reluctance, which is important because it is symptomatic of Rembrandt painting Bathsheba not from the standpoint of an observer but from, as it were, inside Bathsheba’s body… It is intensely sexual, suffused with desire, but it is concrete desire for a concrete independent woman—desire that can be and is reciprocated.1

Theoretical intervention

The book opens with a discussion of art and artistic works in relation to fundamental Marxist concepts: alienation and labour; base (economics) and superstructure (social structures building on the base, including culture); artistic freedom; class and criticism; and form and content. In 1999, John wrote an article in this journal proposing that artistic labour is a form of unalienated labour, giving a glimpse of the sort of human fulfilment that might be possible in a socialist society. This article provoked a heated debate. In the chapter “What is Art?” he revisits this proposition, taking on the specific objections raised against it. In discussing “alienation”, the book is not referring merely to unhappy psychological feelings of being cut off, lonely and isolated. Alienation refers specifically to how workers in a capitalist society have no control over what and how they produce and what happens to what they create. We use our compassion, skills, ingenuity, consideration of others, strategic thinking and wits at work, but are bound by our bosses’ rules and targets. Our creative input gets little credit, if any.

Starting from this understanding of alienation, John pursues a definition of art that can illuminate the artistic forms of the capitalist era. This period encompasses the last 500 years or so, beginning with the rise of the first bourgeois ruling class in Renaissance Italy around the middle of the 16th century. This historical framing is important because this period signals a fundamental shift in how artists and their artwork were regarded:

The modern use of the word “art” to denote a specific sphere of activities and objects, comprising painting, music, literature and so on, distinct from other non-artistic activities and objects, did not apply to many or most…pre-Renaissance periods or cultures… It was during the Renaissance that the modern concept of art began to emerge.2

John cites the Marxist art historian Arnold Hauser, who “identified Michelangelo as a key figure in this process and argues that ‘the fundamentally new concept in the Renaissance conception of art is the discovery of the concept of genius, and the idea that the work of art is the creation of an autocratic personality, that this personality transcends tradition, theory and rules’”.3 John explains that the definition of art suggested by this is not a judgement about whether an artwork or artist is “good” or whether one likes it. Rather, the artistic work is uniquely characterised by “the nature of the labour that produces it”, which can be contrasted with the work most prevalent in capitalist society, whereby we sell our mental and physical labour for wages.4

Karl Marx asserts in Capital that all human labour is inherently creative, and yet capitalist wage labour is the source of alienation. As Marx argues in his 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, “the external character of labour for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his own, but someone else’s…and that in it he belongs, not to himself, but to another…. It is the loss of his self.” However, artistic labour is different because the labour process and what it produces do belong to the labourer. John argues that, however alienated, unhappy or even oppressive an artist’s life and attitudes are—and notwithstanding the extensive involvement of alienated workers in the production of artworks through the manufacture of materials and the putting on of exhibitions—the artist’s labour and product are mostly under their control:

Not only did Michelangelo depend on quarry workers in Carrara to produce his block of marble for the David and other labourers to transport it to Florence, but any painter requires paints and canvas, and even the lonely poet in his garret uses pen and paper produced by alienated labour. But the key point is that whether we are talking about a film or play or sculpture or novel, it is the unalienated, self-directed labour of the artist or artists (director, composer, author, sculptor and so on) that determines the character of the work as art.5

Some readers of John’s original article on unalienated artistic labour objected that alienation is so pervasive in capitalism that no one and no work can be unaffected by it, and therefore all work is alienated. The thrust of John’s renewed argument agrees that everyone is affected by alienation but also points to the many examples in a capitalist society of unalienated work: for instance, sports, trade union activity, growing vegetables for personal consumption and producing social theory. These can be categorised, along with artistic work, as unalienated because they are not performed under the compulsion of the boss or out of economic necessity. Such activities show how productive, creative and committed to work humans are, giving a glimpse of how purposeful, creative and free work could be in a different society. If work could be collectively planned for the benefit of all, this alienation, this spiritual loss, this splitting of our creativity from our work, would disappear:

If there is not a qualitative difference between…organising a strike (maintaining a picket is hard work) and work performed…under the control of a boss, if Marx was not really in control of the content of Capital and the pickets are not voluntarily and purposefully organising themselves but are still more or less completely dominated by alienation in this work, then changing the world becomes impossible.6

John adds:

To those who insist there can be no unalienated labour under capitalism, I would say, “Alright, keep your word, but do you not accept there is a real difference between work controlled by the worker/artist and work controlled by a boss/employer?” My argument is that the former is the basis of art in our society.7

So, the category of being unalienated work is not unique to art. Art’s unique qualities, according to the definition in this book, involve the production of “meaning” in a unity between form and content through the work of art itself. The meaning contained in a poem lies in its choice and form of words—how they are arranged on the page. John gives the example of Billie Holiday’s rendition of Abel Meeropol’s protest song “Strange Fruit”, which “brings about a qualitative transformation…an intensity of both anger and sorrow that makes her version of the song an extraordinary masterpiece. The difference in form of the Holiday song from the Meeropol poem/song generates a different content”.8

As a creative practitioner I feel an affinity with John’s concept of art as a kind of “spiritual health food” for those in capitalist society.9 I understand art as an antidote, a way to find meaning, to express and heal the pain of alienation and to retrieve, however temporarily, our lost selves. There are many studies testifying to the beneficial effect of arts in the treatment of mental distress.10 The relationship between the psychic life of artists and their artistic processes has also been documented. Artist Maggi Hambling, who will not allow filmmakers to shoot her at work, describes painting as “making love with the paint”.11 Tracey Emin, speaking about her 2021 Royal Academy exhibition with Edvard Munch, “The Loneliness of the Soul”, says: “This is about real emotions…a transference from the artist’s hands onto the canvas”.12 Art has a socially transgressive role in that it transgresses, or transverses, the split between creativity, human labour and capitalist production.

The psychological effects of alienation are widely experienced, and yet, contradictorily, we feel we are most alone when unhappy. Art can be very good at expressing these effects and offering a container and a means of connection, representation and articulation that is beyond official, academic and everyday language. A good example is The Scream by Munch—an iconic representation of feeling alienated.

The vital issue of alienation is one of dozens taken up by this book. Another is discussed in the chapter “How We Judge Art”. The idea of individual taste is a shibboleth in the art world, and yet judgement and evaluation are highly marketised and are systematically related to class. Here again, definition is important. The Marxist approach to the relationship between class and art does not see it as determined by identity or sensibility. Rather, class is a distinction between those who do and do not own and define the environment in which art is consumed and produced. Influential bourgeois critics have shaped and reshaped the criteria of artistic appreciation. Because of John’s standing as a writer about art, readers can be upset when the artists they admire are not on John’s list of “greats”. (Spoiler alert: he is not keen on David Hockney or Anish Kapoor, and regards Andy Goldsworthy as “sentimental”.) This is a side issue. John insists that an important part of a dialectical approach is that we “respond humanly and directly to the experience of a work of art”. However, in exploring how Marxists “should” judge art, he proposes that Marxism come into a collaborative argument with established principles of art criticism to identify social reflection and response, as well as unity between form and content, as conditions for “great art”.

John’s observations on the secrecy surrounding decisions about the programming of exhibitions at the major art galleries and institutions is also interesting. This secrecy is another example of capitalism’s tendency to give highly planned and manipulated social phenomenon the illusion of being somehow natural and depending upon objective critical judgements. He offers insight into the art world’s mysterious workings, with wealthy financiers and industrialists seeking to increase their cultural as well as real capital through networking and dealing in art. A few artists play the financiers at their own game. For instance, the contemporary painter Sean Scully has tightly controlled the sale of his works to increase their value, boasting in a 2019 BBC documentary, “I am the Donald Trump of the art world”.


John’s dialectical framework for theorising artistic freedom and judgement is extended in the chapter “The Emin Phenomenon, or the Phenomenal Emin”. The self-revealing content of the first phase of Tracy Emin’s known work focused on vulnerability, emotions, sexuality and her body. Its expressive conceptual forms, such as the installations My Bed, Psyco Slut and Everyone I Ever Slept With, have elicited what John calls “barely concealed misogynistic backlash”, being labelled “narcissistic” and “self-centred”.13 Yet Emin has retained a popularity with young working-class women because “her work relates, like no other artist I can think of, to their experience”. He adds: “Middle-class critics often miss the point of her work because the kind of experiences she deals with are…not part of the world they inhabit. The recognition factor, which is key for Emin’s ‘fans’ and for what I have called the process of ‘democratic sharing’, is missing”.14 In Emin’s work, the content of working-class young people’s lives is involved in, and in tension with, art world criteria and spaces. The actually existing but often obscured relationship between working-class people and artistic work is, in Emin’s audience, insistently present.

Emin’s pieces are examples of artworks made differently from what went before that have been met with a moral inquisition about what can be called art. Works that provoked similar horror include some of Michaelanglo’s figures in the Sistine Chapel, Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, Édouard Manet’s Olympia, Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon and Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII (the so-called Tate Bricks). All these artworks now reside undisturbed in major galleries, hallowed and absorbed into the canon. John addresses this process of rejection and assimilation, dismantling elitist arguments that art can only be defined by the aesthetic sensibilities belonging to the educated and privileged. However, he also exposes the circularity of the individualistic, postmodern argument that art is indefinable, and that what artists do tells us what art is.

Another highlight is the chapter “The Liberty of Appearing”, an essay on the photographer Yasser Alwan’s 2008 exhibition of Egyptian working people. Alwan’s work confronts systematic and systemic underrepresentation of working people in art and the relationship between this erasure and racism against non-Western peoples in Western art judgements. John identifies the sympathetic contribution of photographers Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange, August Sander and Lewis Hine in contrast with the “freak show” approach of Robert Mapplethorpe, Diane Arbus and Martin Parr. A subtler contrast is made between Alwan and Sebastião Salgado; John identifies Alwan’s specific ability to “represent the personalities of his subjects”. These subjects are the individual women, men and children fighting for survival in the industrial hell of Egypt under the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak—an oppressed people about to take “the liberty of appearing”, three years before the Egypt’s 2011 revolution. On the other hand, Salgado’s photography of workers, though “brilliant”, “is premised on the mistaken…notion that the working class is in the process of disappearing… This…gives his pictures a grainy, elegiac quality as he…engages in a kind of romantic mythmaking”.15

The human future

“How Art Develops” is a broad-brush outline exposing the myth of “timeless” art. It shows historical flowerings and declines in art history as intrinsically linked to economic and social developments and humans’ changing relationships with one another and nature. John acknowledges that this process is complex and contradictory, asserting that “the history of art consists of periods of progress and regression”.16 His account looks at times and places where there has been prosperity and economic power such as classical Greece in the 4th century BCE, early Renaissance Italy and Europe in the mid-19th to early 20th century “with the rise of the bourgeoisie, accompanied by the rise (both alongside and in opposition to it) of the proletariat”.17 It would be fascinating to apply the same approach to the artistic development of non-Western societies in relation to economic and social change. A question that also arises is why art from antiquity and the Middle Ages still has resonance today, suggesting perhaps that the dynamics of class society produce thematic connections that reach across economic systems and historical eras.

Our period of fractured naturalism, with the emergence of abstraction, cubism, minimalism, conceptual art, destructive art, land art and the latest “social turn”, is explored in the final chapter. John considers modernism a still continuing process that mirrors the rise of democratisation and workers’ self-determination. Although Chris Ofili is mentioned and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Irony of a Negro Policeman” forms the final image, I would have welcomed a more in-depth examination of the work of black artists, including consciously political black British artists such as Steve McQueen, Sonia Boyce and Lubaina Himid. Perhaps the challenge for readers of this book is to apply its big ideas to areas that John does not explore in depth, such as the consciously self-referential new movements in disability arts, outsider art and queer art, which politicise the issue of biography. An editor could also have paid attention to some outdated gender pronouns.

The final pages of the book explore how art is responding to the ecological crisis. John identifies Robert Smithson as the outstanding land artist, whose work, however, predates the Anthropocene’s “destruction and calamity”. He speculates, rivetingly, that “what will emerge in the coming period will be a kind of synthesis, a dialectical overcoming, of what is strongest in the social turn with the aesthetic materiality of land art… If it happens it will likely be the first truly global art movement”.18

This book should be on every art, culture and society syllabus. The sections on Rembrandt and Michelangelo set a template for the historical materialist method of approaching great art from the past in the spirit of discovering all it can tell us about the world we have inherited. The economic and political context and foundation of the societies in which Johannes Vermeer, Rubens, Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Hilma af Klint, Basquiat and others worked are meticulously and vividly explained. However, it is the artworks themselves, and their emotive and social power, that guide and illuminate John’s dialectical analysis. This is an important jumping-off point for Marxists to deepen our level of engagement with the field of culture and art, and I look forward to its effects.


1 Molyneux, 2020, p101.

2 Molyneux, 2020, p11.

3 Molyneux, 2020, p11.

4 Molyneux, 2020, p16.

5 Molyneux, 2020, p32.

6 Molyneux, 2020, p33.

7 Molyneux, 2020, p34.

8 Molyneux, 2020, p23.

9 Molyneux, 2020, p40.

10 Examples are offered on this specialist website of the Mental Health Foundation—www.mentalhealth.org.uk/blog/how-arts-can-help-improve-your-mental-health

13 Molyneux, 2020, p154.

14 Molyneux, 2020, p161.

15 Molyneux, 2020, p180.

16 Molyneux, 2020, p210.

17 Molyneux, 2020, p211.

18 Molyneux, 2020, p235.