Art in the Commune

Art in the Commune

Marx writes that the ‘narrowness’ of the ‘professional development’ of the artist expresses ‘his dependence on the division of labour’. Ultimately, the ‘exclusive’ character of Art is a function of this division of labour and is an expression of the fact that society continues to be divided into opposed classes.  Art remains under the sway of these class relations with their division of labour and, in its completeness and diversity as an activity, is essentially inaccessible to the overwhelming majority of people.

This social appropriation and monopolisation of Art takes place on the basis of, and is motivated by, the economic and cultural conditions of bourgeois society, intrinsic to which are its educational systems and institutions. The division of labour is a necessary feature of the organisation of bourgeois society in contradistinction to later post-capital, classless societies where the separation between manual and mental forms of labour is superseded with the end of class relations. 

Art, in particular, becomes an integrated part of these newly-posited social relationships in the commune. It becomes intrinsic to the life of each and every individual and not something alien or distinct from this life. Art is not identified or distinguished as a separate or distinct sphere of human activity as it is in bourgeois society. The social appropriation of Art in bourgeois society – its transference (estrangement) into and monopoly in the hands of specific social strata – is overcome in the commune. Under capitalism, Art is a medium through which the alienation of humanity is and can be expressed and, at the same time, a means of protesting (sometimes unconsciously) against those social conditions which necessarily produce human alienation in its different forms.

In bourgeois society – where the division of labour fragments labour into different manual and mental forms – Art itself becomes a distinctive sphere of human activity which is a sphere of activity monopolised and controlled by distinct social strata, groups or even ‘talented’ individuals. Thus, in The German Ideology, Marx writes that….

The exclusive concentration of artistic talent in particular individuals, and its suppression in the broad mass which is bound up with this, is a consequence of the division of labour. Even if in certain social conditions, everyone were an excellent painter, that would by no means exclude the possibility of each of them being also an original painter…..with a communist organisation of society, there disappears the subordination of the artist to local and national narrowness, which arises entirely from the division of labour, and also the subordination of the individual to some definite art, making him exclusively a painter, sculptor, etc; the very name amply expresses the narrowness of his professional development and his dependence on the division of labour. In a communist society there are no painters but only people who engage in painting among other activities. 

(Marx. The German Ideology. Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol 5. Lawrence and Wishart, London,.1976. p.394)

Every individual in the commune will be artistic without being an ‘artist’. There is art but there are no ‘artists’.  Art becomes an expression of the free life of humanity in the commune and integral to its development, unconditioned by the ‘enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour’.

 (Marx. Critique of the Gotha Programme. Marx-Engels Selected Works. Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1973. p.320)

Shaun May

September 2018