Work of art in bourgeois society

Marcuse on affirmative culture

The current condition is to be traced to the development of bourgeois culture in terms of art and religion. Bougeois art succeeds in extricating and idealising freedom and happiness from their grounding in immediate, concrete social practices. Bourgeois art succeeds in rendering the liberatory ideals of the bourgeoisie appear present when in fact they are absent within the context of repressive social practices. In its actual ‘material’ practices bourgeois society contradicts the ideals of liberation and renders things and persons abstract as commodities.

Liberalism commodifies everything, that is, it renders everything in terms of its economic or commodity utility. As such it is, according to Marcuse, a repressive order. Because of the oppressive nature of the commodity market, the happiness and freedom that appears present in or though bourgeois art is in fact a false happiness. An art that appeals to individuals who repress their natural impulses is itself insensitive to the concrete practices that render real happiness present. This art makes happiness present only as momentary and as a purely inner experience within a repressive and unhappy outer reality.

The bourgeois individualist ideal of the personality was in its initiation based in the idea of the self-determined individual acting boldly in the world. This ideal has been subsequently perverted by idealist philosophy (e.g., Kant) into the ideal of the individual who exercises merely inner freedom and outer restraint. Subsequent turn to the authoritarian state and the current psychological manipulation in the repressive affluent society is merely the logical progression from a bourgeois society that already relegates its ideals to the autonomous domain of aesthetic appreciation of artworks. The radical liberatory ideals thus contained are thus removed from infringing on the actual material practices of society, their radical, critical force neutralised.

It is merely a natural consequence that art then becomes the instrument of domination by the state (fascism) or the market (commodification) even within the domain of the inner psyche. High art escapes the market but merely to pacify the bourgeois individual in his or her conviction of inner freedom without outer freedom.

Affirmative culture appeals to the bourgeois individual who renounces his instincts and who substitutes inner freedom for real outer freedom, making it an ideal that is experienced through affirmative moments of beauty which make happiness appear present in what is an unhappy reality. In that sense affirmative culture provides an illusion of happiness and provides for inner freedom, when in fact the ideals that it contains have been rendered merely ideal and have in fact been extricated from the actual material practices of a repressive society. It is therefore through art, that is, thorugh affirmative art, that liberalism has achieved what is in essence a repressive liberation, that is, inner liberation through outer restraint.

Marcuse’s development of this notion can be linked directly to Heidegger’s conception of the work of art and technological paradigms. Marcuse can be seen as substituting ‘liberalism’ and ‘abstraction through commodification’ for Heidegger’s ‘technology’, and adds what is to become a Freudian angle by positing that the repression inherent in bougeois liberalism is then sublimated into art which provides for such a repressive liberation. The notion of the art work as progressive and revolutionary is the notion of an object that focuses actual social practices, interprets them, amplifies them, and forms the backdrop for further interpretation and criticism against the actual social practices. Such an artwork, as it is conceived in Heidegger, must be sensitive or responsive to the actual material practices. It is an artwork to the extent that it is emulated by free individuals. By contrast, Marcuse argues that the ideal emulated by individuals who have “renounced their instinct” must itself be insensitive to the background social practices (to “gratification”). He thinks that the truth of the artwork is falsified by the individuals who seek to emulate it. The artwork is no longer grounded in social practices so that the liberatory contents are nullified. It ‘extricates’ these contents out of concrete practices rendering them not merely ideal and transcendent but also purely abstract, inner, and we might say, disembodied.

The problem here is not that sublimation into art demands repression, but rather that liberalism renders outer reality abstract in terms of commodity values and pays lip service to liberation by creating the autonomous domain of “authentic values” and aesthetic experience in which one can experience inner freedom and which renders happiness present in ways that does not impinge upon the repressive relations of the commodity market. It is inevitable that even that special ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ inner sphere also becomes relativised to the commodity paradigm so that even the inner freedom is rendered abstract (or perhaps textualised, disembodied, or ungrounded).

Heidegger’s technological totalitarianism re-emerges in Marcuse in the form of the notion of either state or market totalitarianism. Marcuse here also anticipates the development of the notion of surplus repression which goes far beyond the basic repression necessary for normal social functioning, for the objectification of the inner expeirence in the outer reality of social relations, the community, that is manifested in the creation of the work of art that is the objectification of the inner impulse. Here we have the rudiments of the Marxist development of the idea of surplus value in Freudian terms, in terms of the surplus repression of the alienated individual who is under the imperative of duty and submits to the rigors of the commodity and labour market. This surplus repression, the renunciation of instinct and the repression of real gratification, is the converse of the submission to the technological paradigm where individuals become abstract persons without a bodily nature, as the body becomes an object within the system of commodity value and thus must be removed from the domain of immediate gratification, that is, gratification unmediated by the commodity market relations.

Revolutionary ideals of bourgeois art: art as objectification and transcendence

There is another idea that can be traced to Heidegger and hermeneutic philosophy more generally and that is the idea that art, as a form of objectification of feeling and practice, has these immediate contents which are to be interpreted in relation to practice. Marcuse insists that while art in its affirmative form is oppressive, its contents point to liberation. Hermeneutics (since Hegel) holds that the mind or reason is expressed or objectified in the products of culture as well as the institution of society. In German idealism art is the objectification of mood and feeling. This culminated in the view, expressed eg., by Wilhelm Dilthey (the founder of hermeneutics in the human sciences) that science and art are ideal and transcendent in that, in their universality, they transcend their immediate historical context and horizon and allow the individual to transcend his immediate historical situation. Thus, although art originates in the context of particular social practices, it extricates their immediate contents from this context and renders them universal and ideal.

It is this notion, the view of art as idealised and extricated from concrete social practices that Marcuse seeks to resist and to show idealist philosophy is the historical expression of bourgeois values. By contrast, Hegel is said to exhibit reason as ideally expressed or objectified in the concrete institutions of society. This Hegelian conception of mind or reason is ultimately expressed in the transition in modernity from philosophy to social theory, a transition initiated by Marx, which addresses the expression of reason in the rationality of social institutions (Marcuse Reason and Revolution). While reason is objectified in social institutions, this objectification is not purely ideal but concrete as it addresses concrete social practices and their rationality. The ideal of human freedom and self-determination is thus expressed in the rationality of material social practices. Philosophy thus makes the transition to social theory.

By contrast, German idealism glorifies art and culture, and aesthetic education, as the means of attaining inner ‘spiritual’ freedom, whereby freedom becomes idealised, abstract, and purely inner, and thus circumvents the critical questioning of material social practices. In affirmative culture “the spiritual world is lifted out of its social context” (“Affirmative Character of Culture”). In Heidegger the work of art functions to focus practices (See Hubert Dreyfus “Holism and Hermeneutics”). Affirmative culture contains the ideals of the bourgeoisie who, says Marcuse, by their very historical circumstance, are forced to idealise reason and freedom, even if their material practices, those of commodification, lead to the anarchy and unfreedom of the marketplace.

The middle classes were destined by their very historical circumstance to exalt the virtues of freedom and reason because they were forced to justify their rise to political power and the disestablishment of l’ancient regime, and for this legitimation they had to look to the virtues of reason and freedom, that is, to the replacement of the self-justification of the established order with a rational order in which men could express themselves freely (Reason and Revolution). However, the bourgeoisie could not implement these ideals in practice because their political power depended on their economic dominance, and therefore on their commitment to the oppressive tendencies of the commodity market. The ideals therefore are ‘spiritualised’ in the privileged domain of art and inner aesthetic experience which is the sole remnant disembodied domain exempted from the rule of commodification, the sole realm of original and authentic values.

Art succeeds in idealising bourgeois freedom, making it appear present while at the same time distancing it from the oppressive tendencies of the commodity market. It renders these ideals inner and disembodied, therefore harmless to the material interests of the middle classes. It is this extrication of the ideals of the middle class out of the context of their material practices which they contradict, and rendering them idealised in the form of affirmative culture that renders affirmative art false even though it contains true ideals. The art work functions to interpret social practices only when it remains concrete and connected to actual social practices. It is liberating only when it remains live and open to re-interpretation. Affirmative art ceases to be liberating when its liberatory contents become idealised and removed from concrete social practices, whereby it becomes totalising and oppressive, a form of liberating oppression whereby it functions to marginalise concrete manifestation of human freedom and real resistance to the oppressive practices of commodification.

So the liberatory, utopian contents of bourgeois art are neutralised by the fact that they are disconnected, through the process of sublimation in the autonomous artwork, from actual social practices. They are no longer subject to criticism, rendered ideal and immutable oruniversal, occupying a central, privileged, and sacred domain that defines bourgeois society and that opens up a privileged domain of purely inner liberation. Placed outside of the context of the actual social context of market totalitarianism bourgeois art actually plays a repressive role, marginalising real resistance to the oppression of the market place. There are at least two implications of this. One is that art and aesthetic practices, in order to provide the means of objectification of social practices, must remain embedded in concrete practices which they interpret. Another is that the liberatory ideals of the bourgeoisie are to be expressed in a rational society in which social institutions as modes of objectification of social practices are subject to the norms of rationality and human freedom.

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