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Does art merely reproduce the dominant culture? How far can it be a means of social change? Discuss with detailed reference to Marx's ideas about culture, and at least one other critical perspective.
Few philosophers have had as big an impact upon the twentieth century as Karl Marx. His ideas have had a decisive impact and influence on art and culture though he himself had very little to say about either. Mark believed the driving force of society to be economics. For him, the shape of our economic system is what forms and is able to determine all that happens in our society. Marx realised a strong correlation between social condition and cultural production. He argued that 'It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.' For him, the social conditions surrounding people have a profound effect upon our perceptions so that we become alienated by them. This essay will explore Marx's views on society including his 'base' and 'superstructure' theories. I will also present the ideas of the philosophers Bourdieu and Darbel who explore the relationship between culture and class, claiming it to be one of social acceptability in which the idea that culture can only be appreciated by the wealthy, well educated upper classes is a key social value.
The development of our culture is based upon our changing set of social relations, Marx uses the example of the capitalist class who own the means of production, and the proletarian class who have the labour power and whom the capitalist buys for profit. These 'productive forces' form what is known by Marxism as the economic 'base' or 'the economic structure of society'. From this base emerges a 'superstructure' whose essential function is to legitimate the power of the ruling class and validate the power they have over the working class, as the owners of the means of economic production. Revolution then, is not simply one class overthrowing another, but the disruption of the whole society which has been brought about by the introduction of a new quality. New relationships, ideas and practices are put into place after the old base has been destroyed and new classes are created which were previously unable to exist in the old society - 'establish[ing] new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.' For Marx, the dominant ideas within a society are the ideas of its ruling class. Art, then, belongs to the 'superstructure' of society, along with religion, philosophy, music, consciousness etc. as they are all decisively shaped by the economic conditions they are created in. These, Marx suggests, are simply the by-products of the economic structure of society and therefore act as a direct reflection on it. Art is conditioned and determined by the society of its time, shaped by it, and to claim that art transcends time is simply wrong.
Marx was greatly influenced in his work by the thoughts of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that because of society we have moved away from how nature intended us to be, as our natural selves. He stated that the further we progress as a society the further we actually move away from society. To Rousseau, mankind was good when in the condition of nature, before the creation of society and civilisation, but has now been corrupted by society - 'Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they.'
In The Love of Art, Bourdieu and Darbel examine the relationship in society between the consumption of culture and the class and level of education of the consumer. They state that 'Statistics show that access to cultural works is the privilege of the cultivated class.' They argue that this has become so because of the different levels of education received by different social groups. Their research shows that 'the average time actually spent on a visit [to a museum or art gallery]â€¦increases in proportion to the amount of education received,' therefore, they argue, the level of understanding a viewer gains when presented with an artwork is inextricably bound to the level of education that particular person receives. To show this, the two use an example of a 'message' held within an artwork - when viewing artwork people often feel compelled to decipher some sort of message from within it. 'The inexhaustibility of the "message"â€¦depends primarily on the competence of the "receiver".' When a viewer is 'faced with a message which is too richâ€¦or "overwhelming", the visitor feels "drowned" and does not linger.' For Bourdieu and Darbel, the construction of art and culture only exists to benefit a small group of people who have the ability and knowledge to understand it.
Society's insistence to define each period of art, every genre and style has lead to people finding works of art appropriate, rather than understanding them on an intrinsic level. In his book, On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral sense, Nietzsche draws upon this notion further using the example of a leaf and the argument that 'one leaf is never totally the same as anotherâ€¦it is certain that the concept "leaf" is formed by arbitrarily discarding these individual differences and by forgetting the distinguishing aspects.' And so, for Nietzsche, we have become accustomed to viewing and accepting works of art on face value and not looking any further, believing whatever we find first within a piece of work.
For D H Lawrence, our way of viewing art works has become conventionalised, with many people experiencing a dulled response. For him, this is due to our way of seeing having become conventionalised. He argues that 'we are afraid of the instincts. We are afraid of the intuition within us' and so our perception and understanding of art is no longer intuitive. Instead we suppress our instinctive reactions and react superficially to art, claiming to see whatever it is we think we ought to be seeing in order to remain within society's familiar constructs, as created by the wealthy and powerful. According to Lawrence, we continue to drift through galleries as though in a performance, hoping that by simply visiting supposedly important artworks they will somehow become impressed upon us and we may become 'civilised'. He argues that culture is oppressive, and that it is only because of convention that we feel the need to 'admire Botticelli or Giorgioneâ€¦but it's all fake.' Lawrence believes that we have created an unhealthy, self conscious attitude towards art that is far too inhibited. Whilst this attitude continues we are unable to experience the true 'power' of art, but remain experiencing no more than 'cerebral excitation' as our 'deeper responses, down in the intuitive and instinctive body, are not touched.' Lawrence's argument supports that of Bourdieu and Darbel who reach a similar conclusion and expose the pretensions of our understanding of art.
Marx, Rousseau and Lawrence's arguments focus upon society's constraints which over time have become naturalised. Their work suggests that we no longer follow any natural instinct but instead remain unquestioning and passive to the conditions surrounding us. For them all, art is merely a reflection of a society and not transcendent from it in any way. The dominant ideas of any society are, as Marx says, the ideas of its wealthy ruling class. Art therefore, can only reflect their ideas and values. For Bourdieu and Darbel, who follow a Marxist understanding of the economic base and its ability to greatly affect the cultural superstructure, 'aesthetic perception is necessarily historical.' Our ways of seeing are greatly affected by that of our society and we are conditioned by our socio-economic and educational backgrounds. According to these philosophers, art merely reproduces the dominant culture; either through the un-education of the lower classes according to Bourdieu and Darbel, or as the superstructure of society, reflecting the values and moral beliefs of the capitalist class for Marx.
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