Art, artists & Marx’s base and superstructure theory by Black Socialists of America

I came across an amazing thread by the Black Socialists of America (BSA) on Twitter . It is really interesting and aligns with many of my own arguments about artwashing and the instrumentalisation of art and artists. BSA gave me permission to reproduce the thread as a blog post. It is essential reading for anyone involved in arts and cultural activities.

Please check out BSA’s website and follow them on Twitter.

Comments very welcome.

 

How many of you artists/creatives out there have been wondering how/why it seems as though the quality of art and design with money behind it (in the mainstream) has lessened considerably over the years (saturation aside)? Ever hear of Marx’s “base and superstructure” theory?

This one goes a bit deeper than what we’ll explore here (as usual), but we’re going to try to simplify this as much as we can without oversimplifying. We’re also going to focus on Marx’s ideas exclusively instead of covering the works of others that try to build on this concept.

Marx essentially explains that in our society, the “base” represents the means + relations of production. The “base” is what mostly influences the ideas that shape what we call the “superstructure.” Our “superstructure” is our art, culture, political frameworks, and much more.

The “base” is currently defined by capitalist relations, which means private ownership and the rigid pursuit of profit maximization. Capitalist firms putting lots of money behind anything “creative” want to minimize costs, and therefore the amount of risk involved as well.

Minimizing “risk” in art means thwarting artistic innovation. In a capitalist system, cost concerns often constrain efforts, which typically starts to lead to low-quality work. Those putting up capital through capitalist relations also tend to have the most creative control.

Capitalism presents lifestyle challenges for artists. Internet brings saturation, which creates exposure challenges for artists + overwhelms potential consumers. Capitalism + the internet calcify the “barriers to entry” for anyone trying to create at a certain level + be heard.

For many years, anticapitalist academics have debated the usefulness of art in changing or shifting society for the better. Let’s start to use a more technical framing for such an inquiry. We are asking: Can the “superstructure” significantly influence the “base” in society?

The short answer is... maybe? The long answer is that while the superstructure technically has the ability to shape and maintain economic conditions, our “base” (economic) reality dominates in terms of what influences and shapes the bigger picture of “society.”

No superstructure can stand without a base. But this does not mean that the superstructure rules out all alternatives in conforming to the base. This, however, does not mean the core virtues of the base will change in light of any ideological alternatives (even if socialist).

There is a dialectic between the base and the superstructure; they play off of each other. But at the end of the day, the material, economic conditions that the “base” represents mold the concrete environments from which our artists/creatives sprout. What does this mean?

This means that our artists and/or creatives must begin to work in a democratic, cooperative, socialist fashion at the material, “base” (economic) level in order to foster communal support networks that lend themselves to the development of a new, rich “superstructure” (culture).

When artists/creatives begin to work cooperatively, individual (financial) successes within this framework mean not just creative control and democratic control of resources, but the potential for infrastructural development that leads to new forms of curation and innovation.

Artists and creatives must begin to organize in a new way, tying whatever they create and the financial fruits that their creations yield into a strong, democratic, economic foundation that supports new creative communities (across various mediums) that can reinforce one another.

Artists must shake the hyper-individualistic and competitive mentalities promoted by our exploitative socioeconomic system, surpass the collaborative (yet capitalistic, monetization-wise) relations of our older generations’ artistic titans, and make a new way forward.

Art suffers under late Capitalism. This is no secret. This does not mean we can’t begin to spearhead new relations between artists/creatives and usher in new creative cultures + subcultures marked by exceptional quality and innovation. Imagine the impact our artists can have!

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN AND PUBLISHED BY BLACK SOCIALISTS OF AMERICA ON TWITTER, JANUARY 2019.