Postmodern Art’s Ability to Critique Capitalism


The theorists and philosophers in the continental wing are thinking of new ways to apply aesthetics. The idea of how to convey beauty, meaning through art. There’s an argument about what postmodernism does to art. There’s a concern about the ideological potency of art to critique culture and in so doing create a new culture. Among that critique of culture a critique of what’s supporting that culture namely capitalism. Marxist theorist Fredric Jameson, argues that the commodification of art from postmodernism neuters its ability to critique capitalism. Rather than being a thing apart that distinguishes itself from this system, it rather becomes a thing that is assumed into by signifying whatever the artist wishes it gives no ample room to criticize anything because it has no ability to criticize. Philosopher of art, Arthur Danto, on the other-hand says this commodification is the exact thing, which gives postmodern art its ability to critique capitalism. The signifying of the everyday, the pastiche as it’s called, shows quite explicitly capitalism ability to make the absurd profitable and by doing this makes a parody of itself by selling it at auction houses, the question of form that post-modernism poses gives it critical power to question capitalism. The question though remains looking at the arguments laid out by both these thinkers is which one is correct? In this paper I’ll argue why I think Jameson is correct in his critique of post-modern art and why I think some of his argument falls apart and what he should consider from Danto.

A good quick understanding of what post-modern art is doing comes from Christopher Butler in his book Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction. First thing to consider is the ideas that surrounded by the avant-garde, “not surprisingly, many (but not all) who saw their work as innovatory or avant-garde were attracted to the new critical challenge of postmodernist themes. But it has to borne in mind that creative people may not need any deep philosophical or academic understanding of such matters.” (Butler, 62) These creative people who saw the new ideas and what was happening took them and ran with them, but as Butler points out were not borne in “any deep philosophical or academic understanding”. They were reacting to what they perceived to be the radical critique.

Postmodern philosophers on the other hand “wished to coopt the artistic avant-garde as exemplars of the importance and influence of their ideas.” (Butler, 62) Jean Francois Lyotard on one hand saw the role of this art to “question the role of the metanarrative of modernism, which was used to legitimize certain kinds of work.” (Butler, 62). Lyotard says to “question the rules of painting or of narrative as they learned them from their predecessors.” (Butler, 62). This results in turn with postmodern art’s preoccupation with form. Butler puts it this way

Postmodern art therefore echoes in very various and often indirect ways the doctrines we have discussed above; it resists the master narrative of modernism, and the authority of high art which modernism itself takes from the past, and it worries about its own language. It is often simply unconcerned by the relationship between the formerly ‘high’ and ‘low’ genres… an alliance with popular culture is seen as anti-elitist, anti-hierarchical, and dissenting. It disrupts narrative (Butler, 64)

Its attempt to “disrupt narrative” ultimately leads to this “relationship between the formerly ‘high’ and ‘low’ genres” an “alliance with popular culture”. The question is does this collapse of high and low, this preoccupation of form actually “disrupt narrative” or continue one?

Fredric Jameson would say it doesn’t at least not the capitalist narrative anyway. In his book Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic Of Late Capitalism Jameson talks about the effectiveness of postmodernism in the type of architecture it creates.

Whether this undoubtedly significant feature of the newer architecture is to be characterized as populist must remain an open question. It would seem essential to distinguish the emergent forms of a new commercial culture—beginning with advertisements and spreading on to formal packaging of all kinds, from products to buildings, and not excluding artistic commodities such as television shows (the “logo”) and best-sellers and films—from the older kinds of folk and genuinely “popular” culture which flourished when the older social classes of a peasantry and an urban artisanat still existed and which, from the mid-nineteenth century on, has gradually been colonized and extinguished by commodification and the market system. (Jameson, 63)

Jameson says rather than “disrupt narrative” it continues a capitalist narrative from its type of feature in architecture. Jameson then with this line of logic continues with this applied feature to “the emergent forms of a new commercial culture”. The feature in question is the one that would “distinguish” one form of commercial culture from another. The fact that postmodernism collapses ‘high’ and ‘low’ makes everything available for commodification that is buying and selling in this market system. That is to say this form is recognized from a historical pattern from “the mid-nineteenth century on” and has “gradually been colonized and extinguished by commodification and the market system.” Rather than disrupt this narrative and this pattern, postmodernism, Jameson argues fits in with it perfectly.

With this devastating critique of postmodern art, how can anyone therefore say that it has any kind of critical prowess at all? If it falls in so neatly with capitalism how can it therefore be an acceptable mode of criticizing it?

Arthur Danto, a philosopher of art, challenges Jameson’s argument of commodification he argues rather than falling into a market system it challenges our notions of form and opens us to be critical of what is being given to us. He uses Warhol and Harvey as examples of people who are collapsing ‘high’ and ‘low’ like the postmodernists to give us a sense of its critical power.

Still, there is the problem of what makes commercial art different from fine art when the products of either look as much alike as anyone cares to make them. It seems to me that part of the difference can be identified if we consider the art criticism appropriate to the two kinds of objects. Harvey had the task of celebrating what his boxes were to contain—scouring pads. From this perspective, the shapes on his carton are emblems of sanitation and of patriotism (the wavy shapes of white and red, together with the blue letters, are like a flag)—and they have art-historical references to Hard-Edged-Abstraction. The cartons shriek NEW! GIANT! FAST! The words Harvey has chosen belong to the ecstatic hyper vocabulary of the used car lot, and his work is a remarkable piece of visual rhetoric. Warhol’s by contrast is laconic. It is of a piece of rhetoric without being one it its own right. The art history of his box takes us not to Hard-Edged Abstraction but to Duchamp. His box raises deep philosophical questions on which Harvey’s text is mute.  (Danto, 322)

The comparison between Harvey and Warhol has meaning to the discussion of the collapse of ‘high’ and ‘low’ in the use of everyday objects as potential objects of artistic criticism. Danto seems to concede to a least one point of Jameson’s criticism namely that of an artistic rendition in a capitalistic form renders it incapable of critical power. When talking about Harvey, Danto says “the shapes on his carton are emblems of sanitation and of patriotism”. Its point is to criticize these things. The “cartons shriek NEW! GIANT! FAST! The words Harvey has chosen belong to the ecstatic hyper vocabulary of the used car lot” and although it is “a remarkable piece of visual rhetoric”.  It doesn’t raise the “deep philosophical questions”, which Warhol does. Though Danto doesn’t give a reason why Harvey is ‘mute’ in this way. You can assume given Jameson’s line of logic that since it’s in a capitalist mode it can’t criticize in a particularly powerful way. Danto’s objection to Jameson is in that Warhol gives rise to criticism in thinking about form, which raises these questions and gives it critical power like Duchamp, which Danto mentions. The question of ‘what is art?’ is a perennial one that has an ability for reflection that Harvey’s doesn’t.

What then is the answer? If Jameson’s approach may be too simple in the interpretation of what Post-modern art is doing in the collapsing of ‘high’ and ‘low’, who is correct? I think Jameson is correct for a reason that he doesn’t necessarily account for and Danto only briefly mentions in the passage above, which gives his argument power. The assumption is in “art criticism”. And I think this is what gives Jameson a better argument than if we just consider Danto.

The assumption is that a person is trained in art criticism and in that they’d recognize the “historical” art movements in Hard-Edge Abstractionism and the questions raised in Duchamp’s placement of objects. That is to say there is an interpretive training someone must undergo in order to recognize these things. The important thing for Marxist theorists is to be able to adequately understand and criticize capitalism as an economic and ideological system. Art in and of itself has no pressing agenda in so far as the artist will convey and that only goes so far as the person experiencing the art can interpret the meaning that the artists is trying to communicate. The point being that there is a valence of meaning around any given artistic object and one particular meaning isn’t always guarantee when presented through said artistic object. What it does as Danto illustrates in Warhol is to bring up questions. It doesn’t always succeed to communicating its message. Thus that is why the old cliché of the misunderstood artist always knee-jerkily comes up when people go away with different interpretations of their art.

What I think Jameson needs to keep in mind is that the collapse of form doesn’t always result in the exploitation of those forms in the market place as he argues. As Danto explores in the work of Warhol this collapse of form can also result in questions of ‘who designates the significance?’, which gives critical power enough to question any system that its situated in, including capitalism. The problem of course is that it isn’t always guaranteed.

What needs to happen in order for the critique to be meaning though is that of training. I think this what is missed in the interpretation of this particular art. If you are to have a Marxist revolution it won’t come through art, but for art’s inability to communicate on a grand enough and plain enough scale that everyone can recognize. Karl Marx’s revolution comes in the form of the proletariat taking its stand against the bourgeoisie. The problem with a training in art criticism is that it’s an essentially bourgeois practice. It takes money in a university setting. The working class in Marx’s theory don’t have time or the money for such a thing. This keeps this kind of inoperative ability out of their reach. This is a problem for art’s ability to effectively mobilize the working class or as Marx calls them, the proletariat to political action. This isn’t just a problem for post-modern art, but also art just in general. I think rather than just saying that there is a problem in post-modern art to fulfill this kind of political action, it should be said that there is a problem for art to do such a thing.

In conclusion the problems posed by post-modernism does indeed complicate the viewer’s ability to receive the message as the artist intends it to be. You can say that there is a critical power of sorts that post-modern art has that Danto has shown, but the problem comes in the interpretive ability in the viewers, which doesn’t guarantee receiving the message as it’s shown. The gulf is furthered by the accessibility of the art in needing a lesson in art criticism that the proletariat doesn’t have. So ultimately I think Jameson is correct, but for reasons that he hasn’t accounted for.














Works Cited

Butler, Christopher. Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002. Print.

Danto, Arthur C. The Madonna of the Future: Essays in a Pluralistic Art World. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000. Print.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991. Print.



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