Capitalism and Art

Art and the media are quite relevant topics given the prominence of the #MeToo movement, Donald Trump’s tirades against the free press, and the recent campaigns to diversify ethnic representation in popular culture. It seems that, for all of their relevance to Marxism and the analysis of capitalism, there is an interesting lack of Marxist voices in the discussion. Perhaps this is indicative of the general Marxist unwillingness to analyze current events without the grand abstractions from the real world necessary to connect theory with theory. Either way, this unwillingness is an issue, as any kind of relevancy will rely on purposefully remaining relevant, obviously.

The liberal push for diversity in art and media is a just fight. There is immense value in inspiring young children with non-white heritages and identities to aspire to the heights of their idols. This is an important component of the construction of a racial identity that can serve to unify oppressed peoples in the face of the weight of capitalism and racial hierarchy. However, there is a certain issue with how capitalism distorts the successes of controversial or challenging pieces of art.

One interesting study into this phenomenon is the empowerment of black women by prominent artists like Rihanna or Beyoncé. Both are undoubtedly black feminist icons and deserve to be commended, but their art falls to the system in which it is constructed and marketed. Beyoncé, for instance, in her new Lemonade video project, promotes an inclusive representation of black females in media. However, this image is utilized to market her art, which offers a sort of “counter-commodification” of black women (with all body types) rather than a deconstruction of the regressive commodification itself. This deconstruction cannot be practically expected from her because of the nature of the market itself. It is akin to the more generalized liberal/Marxist divisions between the critique and the “critique of the critique”. Beyoncé offers a valid liberal critique with widespread impact, but only through the critique of the critique can the problem be expanded into a genuinely systemic category rooted in capitalism’s organization. The critique of the critique is the weapon of pushing emancipation to the conclusions it needs to reach.

This capitalist distortion of art is also present in the fashion industry in a very blatant sort of way (so blatant that I questioned including it given the simplicity of the analysis). Brands like Louis Vuitton and Gucci have managed to make marketing an art. The LV and red and green stripe logos are icons in and of themselves. Supreme legitimately just prints its brand name on hoodies and sells them for almost $200 a piece. They construct scarcity and exclusivity in order to develop a very selective culture around their products, making them seem desirable. This is a modern-day manifestation of the high prices charged for traditional, scarce art. It is the reduction of art and its form into the commodity itself; fashion brands construct their artistry through exclusivity; they construct their artistic demand through artificially generated scarcity.

In an interesting kind of way, fashion’s utter disregard for art is almost art in itself. Whether intentional or not, it is a direct deconstruction of the sort of alienation between the system and the artistry present in examples of art like Beyoncé’s. The simplicity of the analysis is a kind of positive on fashion’s behalf, as it is a very direct play on the system. It’s like capitalism’s unintentional détournement of itself, and that is why I will continue to revel in fashion and its clever stupidity despite my claims.

All of this remains without even delving into how capitalism affects the artists themselves. Capitalism’s infringement of the individuality of the subject must undermine the emotional expression of art. In every expression of the self, there must be a constituent that expresses components of the self that are not truly characteristic of the individual in a pure sense. To the Deleuzian, an expression of mental illness must also be an expression of the capitalist productive order.  To me, an artistic expression must also be an expression of the capitalist productive order and its social byproducts. There is no real representation in art, only representations of the individual in context. This brings up the interesting question of whether or not there exists a decontextualized subject, even in abstract terms? Is the individual entirely constructed out of circumstance? I do not know.

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