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Marx’s Thought Remains Relevant for Contemporary Analyses of Artistic Politics, Modernity and Cultural Production

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Le Cygne, Grand-Place, Bruxelles, Belgique/Belgium, September 10, 2014 | © Courtesy of Christine Chauvin/Flickr.

The ideas of Karl Marx on temporality, as expressed in, among other works, The German Ideology, co-authored with Friedrich Engels and recently re-published in German by De Gruyter, are critically examined in a recent article by Mieke Bal published in Open Cultural Studies in June 2018, where she explores the interrelations between art practices, political activism and philosophical thought, in a demonstration of lasting intellectual relevance of Marx’s oeuvre.

A Blog Article by Pablo Markin.


As she engages with the notion of anachronism in contemporary art history, Mieke Bal takes recourse to the exploration of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ articulation of the concept of untimely temporalities, while also bringing to bear the philosophical perspectives of Henri Bergson and Kaja Silverman on the analysis of video art works of Roos Theuws, Jeannette Christensen and Doris Salcedo that Bal undertakes. More specifically, Bal takes as her point of departure the term of tempo that Marx and Engels have applied to their analysis of history, in order to discuss temporality in art, as the medium through which it is produced and consumed.

This, likewise, echoes the Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels where the rapid and accelerating tempo of capitalist, modern time is one of leitmotifs. Marx, thus, emerges as a modern theorist of time as a phenomenon where continuity and rupture are complexly interrelated, which bears similarity to art history, where artworks are constituted as interruptions of everyday time and mundane chronology. As a material practice, artistic production, Bal argues, can also be approached in relation to Marx-inspired materialism, as an investigation of the material traces and influences of the past in the present.

This attests to the long-lasting intellectual echoes of Marx’s writings, as critical narratives that have been repeatedly reactivated for the reappraisal of the capitalist and neoliberal present in the modern period. Marx’s works have also been among the earliest analyses of the logic of capitalism as a social formation, in which value creation, production processes and consumption practices are interrelated. Modernity, thus, is not infrequently analyzed, such as in an article by Eliza Claudia Filimon, in terms of historical periodizations, such as the notion of postmodernism, that seek to relate to each other time-spanning continuities and historical ruptures, which hearkens back to Marx’s thought on temporality.

Similarly, Walter Benjamin’s insight that historical time is, rather than an event-independent, homogeneous continuum, composed of disruptive, post-historical moments that put into disarray the tradition notions of temporality, while creating interrelated constellations between the past and the present, as Sami Khatib reminds. However, this idea of the lingering past holding on to the present also contradicts the traditional historical temporality, as already Marx has sociologically noted in his critique of the deadlock that the past can have on the present, which incidentally lies in the foundation of historical materialism.

In this respect, Marx’s thought was congruent with emerging social sciences that have sought to comprehend modern developments and their regularities through the study of the past. The internal contradictions of the notion of aesthetic temporality are, thus, also theoretical, since in art practice artistic voluntarism repeatedly confronts cultural, social and economic determinism, as Lynn Hunt suggests in her book on time and history.

Radical art is, therefore, also a social, cultural and potentially political, revolutionary critique of the present historical moment in which it is produced.

By Pablo Markin


Featured Image Credits: Le Cygne, Grand-Place, Bruxelles, Belgique/Belgium, September 10, 2014 | © Courtesy of Christine Chauvin/Flickr.

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