Benjamin, Walter (1892–1940)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC089-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 15, 2024, from

2. Art: Nietzsche and Marx

The agenda for modern aesthetic theory was set by Friedrich Nietzsche (§2), who believed that art expressed a realm more fundamental and constitutive than that accessible to the natural sciences. His many followers were happy to invoke such a superior legitimation for the human sciences. They were resisted by Marxists who, while assigning art a place in history, none the less insisted that this history was exclusively political, and that the nature of art was exhausted by determining the side it joined in the political struggle. Art, in other words, was not constitutive even of its own reality, but was merely a ‘superstructural’ reflection of the political ‘base’.

Benjamin inclined by temperament and association towards the Marxists, not least because the most interesting art of the first third of the twentieth century was Marxist, at least by declaration (for example, Soviet Constructivism, Sergei Eisenstein, Brecht and the Bauhaus). It was clear, however, that ‘base–superstructure’ model of orthodox Marxism could scarcely account for such creativity.

Benjamin’s project may be understood as an attempt to uncover the manner in which art engages in spheres describable in the terms of political economy, but autonomously and without adhering to simplistic criteria, such as ‘progressive’. By abandoning the Marxist categorization of art as mere epiphenomenal superstructure, then, Benjamin accepts elements of Nietzsche’s metaphysics.

Citing this article:
Roberts, Julian. Art: Nietzsche and Marx. Benjamin, Walter (1892–1940), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC089-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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