Marx in the Museum 

In recent years I've grown astonished at how the prophesies of this one man, long vilified, caricatured, maligned, misquoted, and removed from the national consciousness, have become so palpable that society can no longer deny them.

We don't have to dwell on the most obvious or classic dilemmas -- workers reduced to "what they do" (Karl Marx's theory of "exploitation"); the mal-distributions of wealth (Marx's theory of "surplus value" and "class polarization"); the overproduction of worthless junk whose value has declined by machines that make them (Marx's "labor theory of value"); oligarchies, mergers, "wealthfare" for the rich, etc. Today 10 percent of the population owns 70 percent of the nation's wealth (5 percent own all the capital assets). In 10 years, profits for the wealthiest income group increased 49.5 percent while decreasing 14.8 percent for the poorest.

And to bring the ghost of Marx full circle is yet another dilemma on a whole different level -- over "art." What is it? Who and what decides?

The issue was most recently brought to bear at a recent showing at the Brooklyn Museum of Art of a nude woman posed as Christ at the Last Supper. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani appointed a "board of examiners" to look into "standards of decency." But that pales by comparison to scatological themes meant simply to shock the public (pater les bourgeois!) for entertainment's sake. And if art is now mere entertainment, why not a pet rock? Why not a Dadaist urinal? Why not theater art titled The Vagina Monologues (an actual off-Broadway performance)?

For the first time we have a war between aesthetic conscience and economic principle, the sensibilities of rightness against the liberties of market capitalism whose rules dictate a) anything that can be exploited will be, b) nothing is "real" until turned into a commodity, and c) its "worth" is what the public will pay. Any ethical/moral snags are "somebody else's problem." The universe is rooted in the doctrine of "the bottom line" and the sanctity of the expedient price.

It's this very mindset that turns museums, schools, libraries, churches and governments into "fair game" for the principle of high, short-term profitability for whomever gets there first. If art can now be construed as a plaster-mold of cow dung or a waterfall of urine, it's because it brings a profit to someone.

And since profit has become our cultural modus operandi, the "hows, whys, and by whoms" are irrelevant. If profit can be gained through mere "entertainment" (at art's expense), who's to complain? But now, suddenly, the highest captains of corporate finance (e.g. Giuliani) react in high moral overtones about the decay of American culture. You can't have it both ways.

What do you expect when the Reagan administration, knowing and caring nothing about art, turned it into the only language it could understand -- a department called "the arts" -- to be treated as something frivolous and harmless comparable to weaving baskets and making jam? It became a palliative for slums, children's hospitals and Indian reservations -- "gifts" of political patronage, like a craft, hobby or amusement for drug addicts. In the process it also became a political expression of "character" (insult and effrontery vs. Christian and upstanding). Meanwhile, everything else got privatized "for profit," and "high art" for its own sake became an afterthought.

Today, with the entertainment media, we all walk into museums anyway expecting little more than to be "entertained." In a sense artists are only delivering what society expects and how it sees itself. That alone, one could argue, is a legitimately "artistic" purpose. To gasp at art (or what's become of it) is to gasp at ourselves.

In short, it's our own fault. More deeply, it's because of an unwillingness to look at the contradictions between a moral imperative and allegiance to an economic "opiate." We are a people still fearing the ghost of Marx while clinging to the "profit motive" as if it were a mothering goddess always lactating the fruits of private interest. Money is the "proof of grace," the alpha and omega, the presumption of omniscience, and the "god from which all blessings flow."

Censorship is not, and never was, the answer. Although "experts" at the expedient lie (politicians) would always say it is. The artist at the Brooklyn Museum has every right to be there. It's "we" who have to reevaluate the standards that define value and worth, a task that, as Marx also predicted, seems unlikely.

Richard Hiatt is a freelance writer living in Guffey.


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