Marcuse: Art as Liberation

Marxist aesthetics has yet to ask: What are the qualities of art which transcend the specific social content and form and give art its universality?

—Herbert Marcuse1

Is there any role for classic-humanist literature in the moral/spiritual outlook of 21st century socialists? There certainly was for the leading 19th century socialist: Marx constantly reread and studied such authors as Aeschylus, Shakespeare, and Balzac, and his writings are sprinkled with forceful quotations ranging from Homer to Jonathan Swift. His successors also drew upon classic authors—such as Rousseau and Tolstoy—for inspiration and moral enlightenment. And it was only after reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, recalled former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, that he became a socialist.

Yet after several decades of post-Marxist and post-modernist interpretation, my question must seem absurdly quaint. Such literary art is now almost automatically dismissed as “elitist,” “irrelevant,” “Eurocentric,” “sexist”—the work of those Dead White Males who saw the world through their distorting mirror of structured inequality and colonialism. Indeed, deconstructionists have sought to ignore actual past artists entirely, analyzing their “texts” almost as archaeological artifacts of bygone cultural abominations.

Herbert Marcuse (1896-1979), who in several books sought a fusion of Marxist and Freudian theory, was also an authoritative scholar on Hegel and 19th century German thought. He was therefore able to draw upon the tradition of German Romantic humanism (e.g., Goethe, Schiller, early Marx), which had emerged in opposition to the bourgeois-utilitarian, capitalist worldview. The Romantic emphasis on subjectivity and an aesthetic ethos reclaimed purely experiential values and their human roots in nature. Thus Marcuse could never entirely accept the Marxist dogma of “infrastructural determinism”—that “material conditions [always] determine consciousness” (i.e., belief-systems, religion, art, etc.). In its liberating power, art could not be dismissed—as orthodox Marxists did—as merely a superstructural epiphenomenon disguising or rationalizing the existing material relations.

Marcuse critiqued Marxist orthodoxy for de-valuing the non-material dimensions of human experience, the individual’s inner life of complex emotional contemplations—for dismissing subjectivity itself as a “bourgeois” phenomenon (based on privacy, introspection, leisure, etc.). Referring to the “liberating subjectivity” of aesthetic experience, Marcuse wrote that the individual “steps out of the network of…exchange values, withdraws from the reality of bourgeois society, and enters another dimension of existence.” Such a withdrawal—in which an inner life is cultivated in opposition to the “false consciousness” of market-dictated values—allows for an alternate sensibility which “can be either regressive or emancipatory” (emphasis mine.) “The truth of art,” he wrote, “lies in its power to break the monopoly of established reality (i.e., of those who established it) to define what is real.”

Whereas the social-class milieu depicted in a work of art may be dated—say, medieval English kingdoms (Shakespeare) or Russian serfdom (Gogol)—the characters depicted transcend it insofar as they struggle against unjust conditions, asserting their human aspirations as against the almost-universal obstacles of cruelty, deception, hypocrisy, de-humanizing enslavement, alienating forced-labor, reductionist sexism, and so forth. Pathbreaking classics of literature and drama often shattered accepted illusions and revealed “repressed dimensions of reality.” As such, they have awakened countless millions of people from despairing acceptance of the status quo, offering vivid insight into the universal struggle for full humanization—which Marx and Engels called “the free development of each [as] the condition for the free development of all.”

Why should Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony be peremptorily dismissed as “elitist”? Or Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son”—with its expressively profound depiction of compassion and forgiveness? Or any of the great novels of Dostoevsky? Because of their supposed irrelevance to the real needs of “ordinary people”? But Marcuse, besides expanding this definition of “need,” also rejected mass-stereotypes about “the people,” as apart from unique, actual persons: the “need for radical change must be rooted in the subjectivity of individuals themselves.” Thus, revolutionary transformation, Marcuse finally came to believe, begins not only with real class-consciousness but also with the subjective growth of aesthetic and experiential values which fundamentally challenge the dominance of what may now be termed a “techno-economic Weltanschauung.”

  1. All cited quotations in this essay are from: Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978). []

William Manson is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press). Read other articles by William.