The capacity to give a Marxist reading of the mass media, literature and the arts is a necessary part of art criticism; after first outlining some basic aspects of Marxism I shall touch on one aspect of such a critical reading, namely ‘ideology’.
Two authoritative discussions on the philosophy of Marxism underlined certain core aspects of the theory including the recognition that it is essentially a theory of liberation. In the first discussion between Bryan Magee and Charles Taylor, Magee (1978) provides a thumbnail sketch of the basic tenets of Marxism; he stresses the centrality of the arrangements which keep a society in existence – which are, in fact, the means of production. It is these economic conditions and the associated political dimension that form the very basis of a society – upon which all else is constructed. Taylor adds to Magee’s sketch by noting that the appeal and excitement of Marxism lies in the fact that it promises a liberation from the trials and tribulations of an oppressed existence. Marcuse, in a subsequent discussion with Magee, endorses the ongoing critique of capitalist society by highlighting its failures and the positive alternative held out by revised Marxist theory.
A Marxist perspective pinpoints, in addition to the material and historical factors that structure a society, the role of ideology. Ideologies – understood as belief systems – are the product of cultural conditioning. They come in many guises and whilst some are liberating others are oppressive. The most serious Marxist critics attribute many of the failings of western capitalist societies to the role of ideology. They do this by showing that an ideology can be both hidden and can serve to mask actual realities. One such ideology is that of the ‘American dream’ (and something not dissimilar prevails in the UK). The American writer Tyson – a cultural critic – outlines this ideology by articulating three of the more obvious features of the mind-set and belief that is ‘the American dream.’ They are: a) Getting ahead – through initiative, will-power and effort b) Bettering oneself – and being better than others (hence, competitiveness) and c) Rugged individualism.
Tyson (2017) then moves on to provide a devastating description of the way the ideology of the ‘American dream’ functions as an oppressive ideology:
‘… like all ideologies that support the socio-economic inequities of capitalist countries like ours – that is countries in which the means of production (natural, financial and human resources) are privately owned and in which those who own them inevitably become the dominant class – the American dream blinds us to the enormities of its failure – both past and present: the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans, the virtual enslavement of indentured servants, the abuse suffered by immigrant populations, the widening gulf between America’s rich and poor, the growing ranks of the homeless and hungry, the enduring socio-economic barriers against women and people of colour – and the like.
In other words, the success of the American dream – the acquisition of a wealthy life-style for a few – rests on the misery of the many. And it is the power of ideology, of our belief in the naturalness and fairness of this dream, that has blinded us to the harsh realities it masks.’ (Tyson, 2017: 55,56)
The key point is that the American dream has come to occupy such a deeply entrenched position in a shared American psyche that it is not fully recognised as a product of cultural conditioning but, instead, as something natural. It seems so normal and taken-for-granted that it is difficult to ‘haul it out’ of the unconscious and see it as a constructed rather than a natural and inevitable mode of seeing.
Marcuse also understands the role of ideology in similar terms. He even thinks that it must have created a deep psychological cast of mind because the realities of advanced capitalist life in America are not at all commendable. In his conversation with Magee (1978) he observes of America (and other advanced capitalist countries) that, as a society it ‘daily revealed its inequality, injustice, cruelty and general destructiveness’ and that whilst he noted that although ‘Fascism had been defeated militarily, a potential for its revival continued to exist.’ He then continues by saying that he could also mention’ racism, sexism, general insecurity, pollution of the environment, the degradation of education, the degradation of work and so on – and on …
Marxist critics analyse how ideology is brought into being and amongst its sources is both the mass media and its cultural manifestations in the arts. In the light of their analysis a key question for any work of art is the extent to which it supports, promotes or sustains an oppressive ideology. And it may do this in any number of subtle and indirect ways.