Is it possible to sum-up Herbert Marcuse's ideas in his book The Aesthetic Dimension? I am confused as to whether or not he tries to make one essential point or multiple small ones.

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jam898 | College Teacher | (Level 2) Adjunct Educator

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Simply stated, Marcuse has one central idea that permeates his book: Art holds the power to criticize social oppression, and that this power can lead political or cultural revolution; therefore critics have an obligation to criticize art on ideological grounds.  The sort of revolution that Marcuse is advocating is, clearly, a Marxist one. This is why the subtitle of the book is Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics.  As an intellectual, however, Marcuse knows he cannot make the claim of "Art can trigger political revolution, so we must develop a Marxist critical lens" without taking smaller steps in his argumentation to get this point.  Therefore, his introductory chapter primarily summarizes the foundation of his thought in six points (quoted below directly from the text):

  1. There is a definite connection between art and the material base, between art and the totality of the relations of production. With the change in production relations, art itself is transformed as part of the superstructure, although like other ideologies, it can lag behind or anticipate social change.

  2. There is a definite connection between art and social class. The only authentic, true, progressive art is the art of an ascending class. It expresses the consciousness of this class.

  3. Consequently, the political and the aesthetic, the revolutionary content and the artistic quality tend to coincide.

  4. The writer has an obligation to articulate and express the interests and needs of the ascending class. (In capitalism, this would be the proletariat.)

  5. A declining class or its representatives are unable to produce anything but "decadent" art.

  6. Realism (in various senses) is considered as the art form which corresponds most adequately to the social relationships, and thus is the "correct" art form.

The first point asserts that there is a connection between art and production. The second point asserts that there is a connection between art and social class; more importantly, this point claims that "progressive" (usually meant as "avant-garde") expresses the consciousness of the ascending (read as uprising/oppressed) class.  The third point asserts that the quality of art can be considered to work in tandem with the revolutionary content of the work.  The fourth point asserts that writers/critics have an obligation to side with the working class.  The fifth point asserts that those who are in power (or reaping the benefits of the dominant ruling ideology) are only capable of producing art that is "decadent."  Finally, he settles on realism as a "correct" art form -- although he acknowledges parenthetically that "realism" can be a broad term.

Additionally, Marcuse must respond to prior arguments regarding this topic since this is not the first book to be written about Marxist ideology and art.  As just one example, Marcuse addresses Walter Benjamin's seminal work, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction."  To briefly summarize the work, Benjamin laments that mechanical reproduction (i.e. photography, cinema) lacks the "aura" that powerful art can emit when in its presence.  For example, standing in front of the Mona Lisa or the Statue of Liberty evokes a very different reaction from the viewer than Googling these objects and viewing them digitally.  (Or, in Benjamin's time, viewing them on a postcard.)  Marcuse counters Benjamin by asserting that mechanical reproduction can assist in greater distribution among the masses to deliver criticism of hegemonic forces through artistic means.  Although Marcuse would likely not approve of popular culture as a form of progressive art, his line of thought arguably left the door open for cultural theorists to reassess the subversive elements inherent in pop culture works.

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