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Aesthetics & Alienation

By Gary Tedman

Zero Books (John Hunt Publishers)

Jun 29, 2012. 978-1-78099-301-0.


A complete and original theory of aesthetics based on Marx and Althusser in the modernist Marxist tradition (Brecht, Althusser, Benjamin, Adorno).

With the classic Marxist concepts of base and superstructure divided into economic, ideological, and political levels, this book argues that the aesthetic level of practice is the area that has traditionally been missing or misrepresented for political reasons. This aesthetic level is the site of what fuels and supports the media, or as Althusser described it the ‘traffic’ between base and superstructure (mediation). What officially performs this mediation are the aesthetic state apparatuses, and these can be analysed both in the past, for example in art history, and today, in contemporary politics, in their production of aesthetic forms.

What role do art, feelings and alienation play in our culture? The crucial insight that this book offers is that aesthetic experience and practice is shaped by its relation to the condition of social alienation, understood as felt or sensual alienation, and is therefore a reciprocal relation. This generates a human subject pre-sensitive to certain strategies and forms of aesthetic (art, design, attitudes, manners, etc) which become active in the class struggle, such as sublimation. Aesthetic state apparatuses, like the traditional college of art, deal with this domain of human experience and so the ‘traffic’. In this sense they can be said to mediate base and superstructure. Such apparatuses are envisioned as vital to the process of consolidation of a social formation by aesthetic interpellation, they act as the ‘glue’, so to speak, providing social cohesion on the affective, thus also and eventually moral and ethical, level, and become our quotidian feelings of what’s the ‘correct way’ to live out our lives. Notably, this does not necessarily require the overt intervention of any specific consciousness or ‘will’, or of a corresponding false consciousness (ideological level) which fails to live up to any ‘true consciousness’.

Gary Tedman was most recently a professor at the faculty of design and art at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, Italy, and taught courses in the Theory of Social Change and Contemporary Art History, he is a graduate of the Royal College of Art (Cultural History 1988). He produced the hypertext version of Marx’s 1844 Manuscript which revealed the unusual design layout and pagination, and has a number of essays published previously in Rethinking Marxism journal, including “Ideology, the State, and the Aesthetic Level of Practice” 1999.




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University of Amsterdam, May 10-13th, 2012

The aim of this conference is twofold: on the one hand, to analyse the role of the aesthetic in the writings of Marx and, on the other, to examine works of art and literature which are based on, or have been directly inspired by, Marx’s writings. At the core of this conference, then, is an attempt to think the immanent relation between the aesthetic and emancipatory conceptions of politics.

Previous attempts to make sense of Marx and Engels in terms of aesthetics have either been Marxist in a very broad sense – writing as productive force, aesthetic autonomy as critique of the commodity form, the critique of aesthetic ideologies etc. – or Marxological in a naïve sense i.e., merely assembling in one volume the stray comments on art and literature that pepper Marx’s and Engels’ writings. The problem with the first attempt is that it simply assumes that there is a prominent lacuna with respect to the aesthetic in Marx himself and that, therefore, Marxian grammar and vocabulary were in need of radical transformation. The failure of the second approach (although these attempts call for reconsideration in their own right, since they are now all about 40 years old) was that it restricted the understanding of “aesthetics” to statements dealing explicitly with art and literature.

Recent debates concerning the aesthetic (to be distinguished from aesthetics as a discipline), however, have allowed for a different understanding of the field. The aesthetic crosses disciplinary boundaries and cannot be restricted to specific subjects. The aesthetic is a form of thought in which a whole host of complex and interrelated issues are at stake: the orders of mind and matter, the disruptive dynamics of sense perception, expression and of metaphor, the logics of innovation and of “the event,” the indeterminate character of semiotic systems and so on. Aesthetics cannot, therefore, be restricted to art alone and does not even necessarily coincide with it. In other words, the aesthetic is in a constant state of “migration.” Authors like Nancy, Lacoue-Labarthe and Rancière, among others, have pointed out the way in which all radical attempts to theorize the political are profoundly dependent on figures of the aesthetic. The “aesthetico-political” has become a name for all aesthetic dynamics that cross (and confound) the hegemonic orders of reason and the established channels of perception.

Against this backdrop, the entire history of radical political thought must be reconsidered. Socio-philosophical and strategically political claims, which were never originally considered as aesthetic, e.g. Sohn-Rethel’s notion that “Communism is the overcoming of the separation between intellectual and manual labor,” now appear in a new light. 
The texts of Marx himself have not yet been sufficiently interpreted and reconstructed in these terms. And yet in these writings innumerable figures of the aesthetic are, so to speak, at work. From notions of an “aesthetics of production” to the “poetry of the future”, from the radical modernism of bourgeois development to the very idea of “free association,” from references to Shakespeare and Dante in the original texts as well as in important translations, to the idea that bourgeois politics is nothing but a theatrical stage, the aesthetic has an undeniably prominent place in Marx’s thought.

Conversely, Marx’s work has also become extremely rich “raw material” for artistic production. From theatre works on Capital to the Chinese attempt to stage this text as an opera, from Sergej Eisenstein’s and Alexander Kluge’s attempts to make a film of Capital to Rainer Ganahl’s reading seminars, from the work of Zachary Formwalt and Milena Bonilla to that of Phil Collins: these artists are producing Marx as an “aesthetic event.”

In short, in Marx the aesthetic and the political are immanently related: this conference aims to explore how.

Possible topics include, but are by no means limited to the following:

– Aesthetic Production in the Early Writings

– Marx and Engels as Historians of Literature

– Modernism in the Manifesto

– Aesthetico-Political Associationism

– Aesthetic Form and Commodity Form

– Marx’s Method and the “Aesthetic Regime of Art”

– Revolutionary Shakespeare

– Monsters and Ghosts

– Eisenstein, Kluge and the Cinematography of Capital

– Staging Capital (Opera, Theatre)

– Brecht’s Communist Manifesto

– Images of Marx in Painting and Sculpture

– The Beauty of Communism

Confirmed Speakers

Keynote: Boris Groys (NYU)

Keynote: Terrell Carver (University of Bristol)

Keynote: Jochen Hörisch (Universität Mannheim)

Keynote: Kristin Ross (NYU)

Ruth Sonderegger (Akademe der Bildenden Künste, Wien)

Sven Lütticken (Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam)

Kati Röttger (Universiteit van Amsterdam)

Josef Früchtl (Universiteit van Amsterdam)

Helmar Schramm (Freie Universität, Berlin)

Clint Burnham (Simon Fraser University,Vancouver)

Gary Teeple (Simon Fraser University,Vancouver)

Confirmed Artists:

Rainer Ganahl

Phil Collins

Zachary Formwalt

Milena Bonilla


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