In Dialectics of Enlightenment Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer argue that “the basis on which technology acquires power over society is the power of those whose economic hold over society is the greatest” (121). Under economic forces that propel the expansion of capital and the commodification of everything, even the higher elements of culture are bound to be prostituted for capitalist gain. The warm experience of Chopin’s nocturne’s overflow the limits imposed by great halls like the Wiener Staatsoper; Rembrandt’s masterpieces debouch themselves over and above pilgrimages to the Louvre. Now the former can be experienced by a cartoon bunny on a screen and the latter’s anatomy lesson turns into a group of guys eating pizza and drinking Pepsi. Today Mozart is the background to Air France commercials and Van Gogh’s Starry Night a cozy case for your iPhone. Insofar as they enter the logic of profit accumulation, the desecratory and homogenizing violence mass culture imposes on art is justified. Even the most holy of classical art becomes subject to the logic of “mass reproduction” for the culture industry, just ask comrade Jesus on how many stupid commodities his false white face appears on (136).
Adorno and Horkheimer say that,
“The great artists were never those who embodied a wholly flawless and perfect style, but those who used style as a way of hardening themselves against the chaotic expression of suffering, as a negative truth. The style of their work gave what was expressed that force without which life flows away unheard” (130).
This is what the masterful socialist folk music of the great Victor Jara consciously did, as he sang in his classic Manifesto –
I do not sing to sing
The only way to break through the violent perversion of the capitalist commodification of art is through the medium which moves the people who can come to bring a dagger down on the heart of the whole system. The art which stems from the masses, revolutionary art, finds itself in specific moments uncommodifiable. It is shared, it is gripped by the masses, but it isn’t perverted and mass consumed by zombies. This is not the art which requires a passive observer to appreciate it. This art will not simply tell you what to think, what to feel. It will not simply make you laugh, or make you cry. This is the art which will move you. This is the art which will make you active. It is art whose function in specific historical conjunctures finds itself impenetrable by capitalist perversion.
This is art that arises out of moments when the desperation capital imbues on the lives of the masses reaches a turning point where they are forced to turn against it. This is the art which turns people to the street. This is the art which engenders courage, valor, virtue, solidarity. This is the art which, like Che’s true revolutionary, is “guided by strong feelings of love.”
The battle of this art against its commodification is a reflection of the battle of the masses against capital. When the masses lose, the art gets destroyed or absorbed. That is how we get Che’s face on fashionable T shirts, and Mao’s on eccentric liberal pop art next to soup cans. This is how we get the pigs of bank of Amerika doing ‘Masterful Moment Series’ episodes on Frida Kahlo, a communist to her last breath. Or Pete Seeger, a once favorite of the American socialist movement singing working class folk music at the 2008 inauguration of a president who, like those before and after him, perpetuated and expanded the American empire, bombing seven different countries, overthrowing democratically elected governments in others. Who could forget the consequences of these actions in Libya, where shortly after the US murder of Gaddafi, open slave markets would take place in what was previously the richest and most developed country in Africa (thanks to their socialist government). And yet, here was the great Pete, singing ‘this land is your land’ for this murderous administration.
The homogenization of art that occurs in its mass reproduction and commodification stupefies not just the art but the people too, this ends up “breaking down all individual resistance” (138). This is no longer repressive violence done in the open. This is not the violence Walter Benjamin speaks of in his “Critique of Violence,” where the focus is on the brutalities committed by legal institutions of the state. This is much more concealed, like a fox, it takes place in our ‘break’ times from work. It is engaged with as entertainment, not as repression. It is an unfreedom we freely buy as freedom. It is violence masqueraded as a gift.
When a society produces in such a fashion that all qualitative differences in labor are homogenized to express in its product exchangeability, it is only natural that the cultural life will reflect the tendencies of the economic sphere. If one wants a culture which does not subject all art and artistic expression to the will of the profit motive, if one wants to have the sort of culture which cultivates virtuous people and doesn’t stupefy them, if one wants genuine human freedom, and not simply the freedom to consume homogonous masses of products different only in minute details, then one needs to restructure society away from the profit motive and towards human need. Only in a society which prioritizes human life can the most creative expression of the human species freely flourish without the enchaining concern of whether it is a profitable enterprise or not.
Hokheimer, M., Adorno, T. Dialectic of Enlightenment., (Continuum: New York, 1993).
Leslie A. Gomez is a senior philosophy major in Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. She is interested in Marxist feminism and ecology.
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The Midwestern Marx Youth League (MMYL) was created to allow comrades in undergraduate or below to publish their work as they continue to develop both writing skills and knowledge of socialist and communist studies. Due to our unexpected popularity on Tik Tok, many young authors have approached us hoping to publish their work. We believe the most productive way to use this platform in a youth inclusive manner would be to form the youth league. This will give our young writers a platform to develop their writing and to discuss theory, history, and campus organizational affairs. The youth league will also be working with the editorial board to ensure theoretical development. If you are interested in joining the youth league please visit the submissions section for more information on how to contact us!