Art and Marx's Familiar Dream


True genesis is not at the beginning, but at the end, and it starts to begin only when society and existence become radical, i.e., grasp their roots. But the root of history is the working, creating human being who reshapes and overhauls the given facts. Once he has grasped himself and established what is his, without expropriation and alienation, in real democracy, there arises in the world something which shines into the childhood of all and in which no one has yet been: homeland.

Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope Vol. 3

For those whose picture of Karl Marx is of a dour old codger reducing all life to economic imperatives, the deep and abiding affinity many artists have felt for him must seem strange indeed.

But, in fact, Marx was the most savage critic of a capitalist society that in fact does reduce all life to economic imperatives, and he insisted we reserve our outrage for the reality, not he who exposed that reality: “To put the cost of manufacture of hats and the cost of maintenance of men on the same plane is to turn men into hats. But do not make an outcry of the cynicism of it. The cynicism is in the facts and not in the words which express the facts.” He called political economy "the denial of humanity carried through to its logical conclusion,” and while he spent his life critiquing it, he’d written to Engels in 1857 that he hoped to be “done with the economic shit” within a year or two! No such luck for Marx, or for the rest of us.

Marx largely confined himself to analyzing existing conditions, and was shrewdly reticent to project any specific aspirations onto the unalienated post-capitalist society he was struggling for and whose potential he saw immanent in the present (what he called "writing recipes for the cook-shops of the future”). Yet he said enough that the image that begins to take shape of Marxian communism is of an artists' paradise very much like the communism of Oscar Wilde: with social wealth unfettered from the narrow form of value-production, all humans have the free time to develop their total, many-sided creative potentials as ends-in-themselves. While many fret about what could possibly induce people, absent the compulsion of self-valorizing value, to do anything at all, those who endeavor to be artists understand this to be a non-issue: we are intimately familiar with the drive to create for its own sake, and the only thing preventing us from doing so is the necessity of working a day-job to reproduce ourselves!

Indeed, for Marx, artistic practice is the very prototype of unalienated creative human practice, not performed by a proletarian separated from the means of re/production and forced to sell her labor-power in the valorization of capital, but by a human with her own tools in her own chosen media producing for the pleasure of exercising her own creative capacities, of realizing herself. Marx speaks of the writer who, "by no means looks on his work as a means. It is an end in itself and so little a means in his eyes that if necessary he sacrifices his existence to the existence of his work," and in the Grundrisse, gives composing music as his example of "really free labor," which he regards as, while pleasurable, also, "the most damned serious, most intense exertion."

If Plato thought it necessary to banish the poet from his Republic, Marx thought of poetic creation as the model of free human practice, and, like Lautréamont, insisted that this damned-serious self-realizing poiesis be the life-activity of all, not the privilege of the few. Thus it is really not so surprising that a good many poets and artists have marched under the banner of Marx.


Of course, not many artists in capitalist society are able to confront their practice as really free activity, as life's prime want. We may produce art the way Marx said Milton produced Paradise Lost: “like a silkworm produces silk, as the activity of his nature.” But Marx said Milton was, from capital’s perspective, an unproductive worker, and unless we’re churning out paperbacks for a publisher, exchanging our labor-time against capital, so are we. If we don’t make art for a wage, and thus confront it as an alien activity belonging to a capitalist, then we must try to squeeze it in somehow, somewhere around the necessities of making a living. It is easy for the drive to create to be crushed by the routine of wage labor and the anxieties of the proletarian condition.

Few of the early 20th century's great Marxian aestheticians, neither Lukács campaigning for 19th century realism nor Adorno defending high-modernist "autonomous art," seemed to have grasped this basic fact: trapped as they were in analysis of the work of art, these thinkers neglected the art of working, of creative practice as sensuous human practice, of the artist as a worker who must attempt to carry on a type of creation often counterposed to waged value-production within the confines of a daily life dominated by the exigencies of capital. But to understand the artwork in capitalist society, we cannot look at it as the finished product that exchanges on the market (or doesn’t!), still less as some ahistorical, immaterial "text," but we must, as Marx did, enter the "hidden abode" of the process and relations of its production.

The problem of art is the problem of the artist, which is the problem of all of humanity (whose species-content is, for Marx, basically self-reflexive creative practice) alienated from its creative potentials, which is a problem located in everyday life. The early 20th century avant-gardes realized this: that for the artist to be able to truly realize herself in her work, life itself must be changed, thus it must be the artist's work to change life.


The familiar is not the Known.

G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit

I am often penetrated by this strange dream
Of an unknown love who loves me
Never quite the same yet never
Utterly other here total communion

Reigns and my heart becomes transparent
Glass here alone unknotted
Here alone the sweat of my brow
Washed with weeping rain

White, brown, or — red? I know not
Her name? I recall it sonorous and soft
Like those of lovers cast from Life

Eyes here flash as statues' eyes here
Break the waves of voices grave
Tranquil, distant, vanquished voices

Paul Verlaine, "Mon rêve familier"

In 1872, Arthur Rimbaud wrote a "confession" in the voice of his lover Paul Verlaine, "an old friend in hell." In it, Rimbaud ventriloquizes about himself: Rimbaud's Verlaine lies awake in a Camden Town lodging-house next to his young companion, "trying to imagine why he wanted so much to escape from reality," and wonders: "did he, perhaps, have secrets for changing life?" before concluding, "no, he's only looking for them."

Had Verlaine and Rimbaud looked a bit further south, in Soho, they would've found a man who knew why the infernal bridegroom wanted so much to escape from reality, and who did have secrets for changing life: Karl Marx. It was the remarkable insight of André Breton and the surrealists to find Rimbaud's secrets in Marx, to comprehend that the poverty of lived experience which caused so many modern artists to flee reality was the result of the specific historical conditions of capitalism, and that only through class struggle to concretely abolish those conditions could real life itself become artistic, that is, devoted to creative human practice as an end in itself, thus overcoming the alienation of art from life.

The dream had been the Romantic figure for the artistic negation of everyday reality. But the surrealists saw that dreams were also a part of everyday life, that they were related to everyday life not in crude opposition, but dialectically. The dream was a part of the everyday, but also a kind of automatic critique of the everyday: intensely familiar, and intensely strange, the dream pointed up the strangeness, the estrangedness of reified life in a capitalist society. It crawled with its horrors, but also kept its few buried hopes and wild desires that cried out to be realized, overcoming the alienation of life from dream, in its multiple senses.

Ernst Bloch, on the hunt for hope, seized upon the daydream: the conscious wishful image of changed life. The specter of familiarity haunts such dreams, the plenitude of realizing one's capacities, of living a life where this free self-activity is life's prime want. But nothing is less familiar to us. Everything familiar to us is, in fact, strange, and estranged: we are everywhere a means, and nowhere an end in ourselves, everywhere homeless, we cannot grasp what we lack for we have never had it. All our limbs are phantom limbs that only dimly retain a memory-anticipation of the Not Yet. The practical realization of this familiar dream in the abolition of alienated labor is a homecoming to the unknown.

A New Institute for Social Research