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Walter Benjamin as a Marxist Criticist of Art


Critics of the Marxist approach comprehended art as a form of social production and realization. For them, it is not an intellectual, idealistic phenomenon but an instrumental social practice. A genuinely revolutionary artist, therefore, always deals not only with a work of art but also with the means of its production. Such thinkers as Walter Benjamin, see literature as a text, but also perceive it as a social activity, a form of social and economic production that exists side by side and in close interaction with other practices. They introduce a new vision of engagement: it is more than a mere expression of the right political views in art. Engagement in Benjamin’s philosophy of art manifests itself in how dramatically the artists recreate the art forms at their disposal, turning authors, readers, and spectators into accomplices.

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The title of Benjamin’s article “The Author as a Producer” is an illustration of his approach. While exploring the phenomenon of the Soviet proletarian culture, Benjamin raises the question of the need to attract European intellectuals to the working class. The author claims that the task of a revolutionary artist is to develop new media and transform the old ways of art production. Benjamin sees this mission of the author as a mediating activity (Benjamin 2005, 780). This essay aims to cast light on Benjamin’s social criticism of art and the examples that he offers.


As an idealistic model of the “operating” writer (whose goal is not only “informing,” but also “operating”), the German philosopher mentions Sergei Tretiakov, one of the Russian authors who, despite their bourgeois origin, became a self-proclaimed social activist. “This operating writer provides the most tangible example of the functional interdependence that always, and under all conditions, exists between the correct political tendency and progressive literary technique” (Benjamin 2005, 770). The step Tretiakov makes changes not only his destiny and artistic commitment, but also the nature of relations between artists and society. For Benjamin, revolutionary artists should not passively accept the available forces and instruments of art production. They should develop, ask questions, and revolutionize these forces. Hence, it requires a new social relationship between the artist and the audience.


However, a contradiction limits the artistic potential power: if the artist, in Benjamin’s terminology, is a producer, access to the production facilities is necessary. As early as 1934, these facilities – cinema, radio, photography, sound recording – were the private property of a few. This interest in the production process and the means of production makes it possible to review Benjamin as a representative of Marxist criticism. The artist’s ultimate mission is not only to use the existing media for their revolutionary “message” but to revolutionize the media themselves (Benjamin 2005, 772). The German thinker believes, for example, that a newspaper erodes the traditional boundaries between literary genres, between a writer and a poet, a scientist and a popular writer, even between an author and a reader (since the readers of a newspaper are always ready to become authors themselves). Likewise, phonograph records turn into an anachronism such a form of production like a concert hall (Benjamin 2005, 775). Cinema and photography are fundamentally changing the traditional ways of perceiving, the conventional techniques, and relationships of art production. Benjamin reconsiders this conflict through the notion of the revolutionary artist’s engagement.


Benjamin, Walter. 2005. Selected Writings. Volume 2, Part 2. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

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