Bertolt Brecht and Marxist Art

Sybil Davis

March 7, 2021

The German communist poet created an approach that stands in contrast to traditional and postmodern ideas.

The theatre as we know it shows the structure of society (represented on the stage) as incapable of being influenced by society (in the auditorium). Oedipus, who offended against certain principles underlying the society of his time, is executed: the gods see to that; they are beyond criticism. Shakespeare’s great solitary figures, bearing on their breast the star of their fate, carry through with irresistible force their futile and deadly outbursts; they prepare their own downfall: life, not death, becomes obscene as they collapse; the catastrophe is beyond criticism. Human sacrifices all round! Barbaric delights! We know that the barbarians have their art. Let us create another.

So wrote German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht in his A Short Organum for the Theatre. Brecht is often remembered as a cutting-edge artist who revolutionized the form of theater, and many of his plays are constantly being revived around the world with the likes of Meryl Streep and Cyndi Lauper stepping in to star. But we should remember him as, first and foremost, a Marxist artist who sought to create a specifically Marxist form of art. In this, he presents an important opposition within the theatrical avant-garde against postmodernism, which has come close to dominating many art forms in the last several decades.

At first glance, it may seem trivial to consider the Marxist content of art, but it is important to understand that the way that the dominant popular culture of a society is structured reflects the values of that society. As acclaimed avant-garde theater artist Charles Mee put it, “A play embodies a playwright’s belief about how it is to be alive today, and what it is to be a human being — so that what a play is about, what people say and how things look onstage, and, even more deeply than that, how a play is structured, contain a vision of what it is to have a life on earth.” So the way an artist chooses to make a piece of art reflects the way they believe the world works. Given this, a serious interrogation of a society’s art and culture from a Marxist perspective is helpful to understand the ways that the dominant ideology takes shape and reinforces the dominant class’s political and economic rule over a given society.

All this is not to say, of course, that art alone has the power to create or change cultural values. This is the postmodern view. Rather, understanding how art and culture at large support and reflect the capitalist system is useful in developing an analysis of the conditions of a society. But because those conditions are material, they will need material solutions that go far beyond the scope of art.

The Aristotelian View of Art

In his seminal book The Logic of Marxism, George Novak argues that Aristotle is the father of formal logic, which has long served as the unquestioned philosophical framework by which to understand human thought, nature, and society. Given this, it is interesting that the basis of the modern understanding of theater as an art form also comes from Aristotle. Analyzing Aristotle’s views on art within the context of his theoretical framework reveals limitations in this view that would later be synthesized in a critique from Brecht.

On its most basic level, Aristotelian art — as established in his Poetics — follows what many in the West would consider a “traditional structure.” It follows a single protagonist who follows a series of linear plot points. The plot builds to a single climax, the narrative is resolved, and the play ends. This model of storytelling has stretched out from theater and has become near universal in everything from cinema to video games to comic books.

The “unity of plot,” as Aristotle refers to it, is not merely an aesthetic preference but, rather, a key philosophical statement about the way Aristotle views reality. Aristotle’s aesthetic theory understands good art in the same way that his logic views the world: as linear and direct. As he wrote in the Poetics,

For this reason poetry is more philosophical and more serious than history; poetry utters universal truths, history particular statements. … Of defective stories and actions, the worst are those that are episodic. I call a story episodic when the sequence of episodes is neither necessary nor probable. … Tragedy is an imitation not just of a complete action, but of events that evoke pity and fear. These effects occur above all when things come about unexpectedly but at the same time consequentially. This will produce greater astonishment than if they come about spontaneously or by chance — for even chance events are found more astonishing when they seemed to have happened for a purpose. … I call an action simple if it is, in the sense defined, continuous and unitary, and in which the change of fortune takes place without reversal or discovery; I call it complex if the change of fortune involves a reversal or a discovery or both. These should grow naturally out of the plot of the story, so that they come about, with necessity or probability, from the preceding events. There is a great difference between something happening after certain events and happening because of those events.

In other words, Aristotle believes that tragedy (which has since been used by neo-classicists to refer to art in general) should express the universal and that it should follow as cause and effect, in order to inspire fear and pity in the audience. At first glance, this may seem perfectly natural as it aligns with much of what we learn in school about art and most of what we consume every day. When we throw on the latest Netflix show (with the noted exception of more experimental shows like Bojack Horseman), we can assume we’ll be following some number of relatable characters who will have something resembling “universal” qualities — “universal” typically being defined as straight, cis, white men of the upper classes — and then have a series of experiences that progress linearly till they either learn a lesson or don’t. When the show concludes, we will feel satisfied because we saw what we consider a “full story,” characters who went on a journey that ended the only way it could have.

On closer examination, however, this idea has troubling political elements. Brecht compared Aristotelian theater (“the dramatic theatre”) to his own kind of theater, which he called “epic”:

The dramatic theatre’s spectator says: Yes, I have felt like that too — Just like me — It’s only natural — It’ll never change — The sufferings of this man appall me, because they are inescapable — That’s great art; it all seems the most obvious thing in the world — I weep when they weep, I laugh when they laugh.

The epic theatre’s spectator says: I’d never have thought it — That’s not the way — That’s extraordinary, hardly believable — It’s got to stop — The sufferings of this man appall me, because they are unnecessary — That’s great art; nothing obvious in it — I laugh when they weep, I weep when they laugh.

At a fundamental level, Aristotle’s system of art making argues for a linear plot that follows, typically, from a tragic flaw of the hero. In other words, because the central character has a tragic flaw, then the rest of the play follows a “natural” but not necessarily expected cause and effect. A leads to B, which leads to C, which leads to D, which can only end with E. You cannot make Q lead to J because that’s just not cause and effect; it’s merely episodic. And this enforced linearity is the fault of the characters because they are tragically flawed. They deserve all their pain and tragedy because this was always how it was going to end. Oedipus could never have kept his eyes, Antigone could never have been spared, and Medea was always going to murder her children.

It is little wonder, then, as society progressed to capitalism that Aristotelian art became so popular. The logic of capitalism is that this is the way society has always worked and will always work. The magic trick of capitalism is to make it appear universal.

The Postmodern View of Art

In the modern era, opposition to Aristotle’s views on art have emerged among many artists. This opposition has taken many forms, from feminist and queer critiques to Brecht’s Marxist critiques. Broadly, for the purposes of this article, we will define this opposition to the mainstream Aristotelian theory of art as “the avant-garde.” There are two main philosophical strands of avant-gardist thought, which we can call postmodern and leftist. Within each wing there are a variety of differences about the best way to critique Aristotle and what the best alternative to him is, but these are the two general camps. Setting aside for a moment the leftist camp — as represented most prominently by Brecht — we find that the postmodernists are the avant-garde sector that is both the most prominent and the hardest to nail down. This is because, in many ways, they reject definition altogether. Essentially taking the position that Aristotle’s failings originated in his quest for universality, postmodern artists reject universality, stable definitions, and often meaning.

An idea that is foundational to postmodernism is that changing the discourse around something can effectively change the world. In The History of Sexuality, postmodernist Michel Foucault lays out what he defines as “reverse discourse,” which is, in typical Foucauldian fashion, complex and difficult to explain. In essence, Foucault argues that oppressed people can push back against their oppressors by subverting the discourses of their oppression. Discourse, in this context, means a “historically contingent social system that produces knowledge and meaning.”

Turning to art, we can see countless examples of avant-garde artists and theorists putting forward what amounts to reverse discourse — including the author of this piece in an earlier article. The failings of reverse discourse as a method of liberation are that it is incomplete to the point of irrelevance in a discussion about liberation. One does not defeat one’s oppressors by using their own words or culture against them; one defeats one’s oppressors by overthrowing them. Oppression is a material reality. It operates materially and thus demands a material response. Discourse generally and art specifically alone can never provide that.

In addition, postmodernism, both as a philosophical and an artistic movement, masquerades as liberatory but largely erases class, leaving us with a mess of oppression that is committed by all of us all the time. By erasing class and differences in power (the power of an abusive husband, for example, is no different from the power of the state in a postmodern framework), postmodernism offers us no way of understanding why oppression takes place. In other words, by ignoring the causes of oppression and the way that power functions in a material sense, it posits a constant resistance without any liberation. Liberation is impossible because any revolution is doomed to fail; whomever a revolution sweeps to power will just be a new oppressor.

This amounts to nihilism and fatalism, as well as a politics of “constant resistance.” In the context of art, this leads to the rise of incredibly depressing art that frames our current social problems as eternal, existential trials of the “human condition” rather than material problems brought about by our social order. Take, for example, the work of Samuel Beckett, an early forerunner of postmodernism in the theater. The themes of his work can be summed up in one of his most famous lines: “I cannot go on, I will go on.” This is the postmodern approach to living: all is pain, and that pain is eternal; all we can do is find our little ways to resist for ourselves, but there is no liberation in the larger sense. We are just individuals adrift in a cruel world that is fundamentally meaningless. Godot will never come, life will never mean anything; perhaps we should all hang ourselves tomorrow. We can’t go on, but we will go on.

Another example of this nihilism comes in the Dadaist movement of the early 20th century. Springing out of mass disillusionment of the First World War and the betrayals of social democracy, Dadaism originated in Switzerland — just a few blocks from where Lenin was living — among artists who had taken refuge there. Proudly declaring that “Dada Means Nothing,” Dadaist highlighted what they saw as the fundamental disorder and meaningless of life. Gone was Aristotle’s search for universality and cause and effect; here was the postmodern attack on definition.

In the words of Dada artist (and communist) Tristan Tzara,

How can one expect to put order into the chaos that constitutes that infinite and shapeless variation: man? The principle: “love thy neighbor” is a hypocrisy. “Know thyself” is utopian but more acceptable, for it embraces wickedness. No pity. After the carnage we still retain the hope of a purified mankind. I speak only of myself since I do not wish to convince, I have no right to drag others into my river, I oblige no one to follow me and everybody practices his art in his own way. … And so Dada was born of a need for independence, of a distrust toward unity. Those who are with us preserve their freedom. We recognize no theory. We have enough cubist and futurist academies: laboratories of formal ideas. Is the aim of art to make money and cajole the nice bourgeois?

In this quote we can see the heart of the postmodern movement in art — a movement that was anticipated by Dada. First, it is the absolute rejection of universality and fixed definitions, a “distrust toward unity.” Second, it fashions that rejection as political, arguing that removing art from the bounds of Aristotelian aesthetics is, in some way, an attack of the bourgeoisie. These are key elements of postmodernism writ large, and their missteps in art are representative of their mistakes as a whole philosophical movement.

To begin, there is a difference between rejecting universality in the Aristotelian sense — that one situation with one person can be representative of all people everywhere — and rejecting “unity.” In the postmodern view, everything can — and does — have multiple meanings, none of which are necessarily better or worse than the others. This severely weakens political perspective in art because all it can do is critique, not propose. In other words, a postmodern work of art can point out all the flaws of capitalist society but cannot put forward any image of an alternative because postmodernists don’t believe in unity. An artist can say that such and such is bad, but can only say that an alternative would be better for them. This renders political art toothless and inert, leading to the rise in “preaching to the choir” art that artistically restates the same political message — often something along the lines of “war is bad” or “oppression is bad” — over and over again, without ever considering an alternative leading to an individualistic “resistance”-based approach to politics.

Given this, it is no wonder that so many postmodern artists have used their art to, as Tzara once warned against, “make money and cajole the nice, nice bourgeois.” Art galleries and the homes of billionaires across the world are full of postmodern paintings, purporting to criticize “the establishment.” For example, avant-garde artist Shepard Fairey ditched his nominally anti-establishment street art to design campaign posters for Democrats. The theaters, galleries, and concert halls that host avant-garde artists are often funded by the über-rich. Clearly, rejecting unity and universality has not resulted in a truly anti-establishment artistic movement.

This leads us to the second main theoretical failing of the postmodern movement in art: confusing aesthetics with politics. The implications of this are far reaching. To begin with the obvious: the failings of Aristotle’s views on art are not just his aesthetics. One cannot subvert the political content of mainstream art by simply telling it out of order. In other words, it is not more subversive to perform all the scenes of Julius Caesar out of order than to, as Orson Welles did, adapt the play to comment on contemporary politics. So too, a piece of abstract expressionism is not inherently more politically challenging than a landscape simply because it is abstract.

To go further, even if one were to create a piece of political art that is legitimately challenging to the bourgeois order, that still wouldn’t do much to actually disrupt the bourgeois order. There have been all sorts of incredible anti-capitalist works of art that, while valuable, have not done much to actually disrupt the establishment. This returns us to Foucault’s concept of “reverse discourse.” Postmodern artists believe that the individual artist can create a work of art that will, on its own, break with capitalist ideas and aesthetics, and that this is somehow liberatory. This is, of course, far too much pressure to put on art and artists. No work of art can change the world alone, because art doesn’t change the world. The audience does.

Brecht’s View On Art

Turning to the leftist camp of the anti-Aristotelians, we find Brecht as its theoretical leader. Brecht rejects both the Aristotelian notion of linear universality and the postmodernists’ embrace of meaningless and their belief in aesthetics as political resistance. Instead, he establishes a firm material-dialectic approach to art making, creating one of the most coherent theories on political art yet put forward.

Brecht once said that it was only after reading Marx that he finally understood his own plays. Indeed, Brecht’s theater is firmly dialectical both in content and in form. Rejecting Aristotle’s concept of linear storytelling, he developed the Verfremdungseffekt (distancing effect). The Verfremdungseffekt was based on intentionally distancing the audience from the work they were seeing on stage to force them to think about the events of the play in context. To do this, Brecht would have actors break character to address the audience and briefly describe what would happen in each scene before playing it out. Actors would also change costumes in full view of the audience, and they were directed to act in a way that highlighted the performative elements of the play. Through these decisions, Brecht sought to remove catharsis from his theater. By denying the audience what Aristotle held sacred, Brecht effectively told his audience that they were there to think, not just feel.

The clearest example of what Brecht was seeking to do comes at the end of his play The Good Person of Szechwan. The play follows a good-hearted sex worker who, after being gifted with riches by the gods because she’s the only good person in Szechwan, is exploited by everyone around her. To protect her newfound riches, she goes into drag as her “brother” and becomes mean and miserly, the opposite of the kindly character we met earlier in the play. The gods return and find themselves in an inescapable contradiction: they rewarded her because she was the one good person, but “one cannot remain good when goodness is not in demand.” Then the play abruptly ends. It would be incredibly unsatisfying if not for an actor who steps forward and delivers the following epilogue:

Ladies and gentlemen, don’t feel let down: We know this ending makes some people frown. … But what would you suggest? What is your answer? Nothing’s been arranged. Should men be better? Should the world be changed? Or just the gods? Or ought there to be none? We for our part feel well and truly done. There’s only one solution that we know: That you should now consider as you go what sort of measures you would recommend to help good people to a happy end. Ladies and gentlemen, in you we trust: There must be happy endings, must, must, must!

This is the perfect example of what sets Brecht apart from the postmodernists: the vehicle for change for him is not the play but the audience. He views the role of a political artist not as an activist but as an agitator who uses art to inspire the audience to take up certain political struggles or points of view. The audience, which was essentially absent from both the Aristotelian and postmodern concepts of art, is now the center. Gone is the pretentious universality of Aristotle or the masturbatory self-centeredness of postmodernism. Brecht is writing for his material conditions. Indeed, many of his plays have been performed as agit-prop by various leftists (including during Brecht’s own time).

As he writes in Threepenny Opera:

My business is too difficult. My business is trying to arouse human pity. There are few things that’ll move people to pity, a few, but the trouble is when they’ve been used several times, they no longer work. So it happens, for instance, that a man who sees another man on the street corner with only a stump for an arm will be so shocked the first time that he’ll give him sixpence. But the second time it’ll only be a threepenny bit. And if he sees him a third time, he’ll hand him over cold-bloodedly to the police.

Finding ways to fight this acceptance of conditions as natural and absolute gave rise to Brecht’s dialectical approach to art. It’s what makes his work stand out from that of the postmodernists.

Criticisms of Brecht

Brecht was far from perfect. A critical look at Brecht’s career reveals that he overemphasized the power of art. Although Brecht centers the audience as the agents of change, he doesn’t provide many concrete ways to do that. His art functions primarily as denunciations. He correctly asks the audience to identify capitalism as the primary root of evils and effectively argues that this system can (and should) be brought down. But he didn’t use his art to paint a picture of what the world could be or how we get there. There is a hope of liberation in Brecht — marking an important distinction from postmodernism — but no image of what that liberation could look like or how it could come to pass.

Another major failing of Brecht is his long delay in criticizing Stalin’s betrayal of the Russian Revolution. He even accepted the Stalin Peace Prize in 1954, long after the purges had begun. In this, Brecht fell into the same trap as Woody Guthrie, Tristan Tzara, and countless other leftist artists of this time who failed to acknowledge the betrayals of Stalin for far too long. As Fritz Raddatz, an East German writer, Marx biographer, and Brecht contemporary said to German journalist Bettina Röhl for her book This Is How Communism Is:

[Brecht and his contemporaries] were all “broken,” and by this I mean they avoided the problem of Stalinism, ran from it. Never mentioned their murdered friends and comrades, mostly in the USSR. Never engaged politically during [the] Slansky Trial in Prague. “Broken” means they experienced the lie. I accuse them of keeping silent about the crimes of Stalin’s regime. … If that was not enough, they also wrote panegyrics praising Stalin, and they did that when they already knew about all these murders and atrocities.

Turning a blind eye to these travesties is part of the failure of Brecht’s art to take up what a revolution and socialist state ought to look like. He is very good at denouncing capitalism but kept mum as the Stalinist bureaucracy betrayed the revolution. Brecht leaves unanswered the key questions of how a revolution should be run and what ought to come after it. This allows his plays to be read in a reformist light. In other words, by not making explicit his revolutionary politics, his art can fall into the trap of just being “anti-capitalist,” especially when it, as often happens in the mainstream theater, is divorced from Brecht’s own radicalism. That’s why wealthy artists like Meryl Streep can do Brecht plays, because they take them only as criticism of a specific social ill rather than as a condemnation of the entire system.

Toward a Marxist View of Art

In the Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art, the authors (credited as André Breton and Diego Rivera but believed to actually be Leon Trotsky and Breton) write,

The communist revolution is not afraid of art. It realises that the role of the artist in a decadent capitalist society is determined by the conflict between the individual and various social forms which are hostile to him. This fact alone, in so far as he is conscious of it, makes the artist the natural ally of revolution.

These words still ring true today as vast swaths of artists struggle with precarious employment, crippling student debt, and fewer and fewer opportunities as arts funding dries up or disappears altogether. Indeed, in the years since those words were written, artists have become increasingly proletarianized, increasingly unable to earn a living by just making their art. To this end, it is important for Marxists to take up a politics for and toward artists.

We must, however, also realize that there has been a “de-Marx”-ing of art and art theory over the past decades. By and large, the communist artists who populated the early 20th century have disappeared, to be replaced by a glut of postmodernism.

To fight back, we must look at the Marxist artists and theorists of the past and see what we can learn from them in order to synthesize a Marxist perspective on art. Brecht’s writings are vital parts of this study, since he is one of the only artists to successfully find a way to express material dialectics in art. He also realized what all political artists must: that it isn’t the art that changes the world but the audience. As Brecht wrote in his essay Cultural Policy and Academy of Arts:

The campaign against formalism must not simply be regarded as a political task, but must be given a political content. It is part of the working class’s struggle for authentic solutions to social problems so that phoney solutions in the arts must be combated as phoney social solutions, not as aesthetic errors. Politicians may be surprised, but most artists find the language of politics easier to understand than a hastily scraped-together aesthetic vocabulary which has nothing to offer but ex-cathedra pronouncements of a nebulous kind.

The fight against capitalist logic in art — be it “traditional” art or postmodern — is not merely an aesthetic fight but a political one. Artists must make work that directly attacks capitalism as a system and that shows how the working class and oppressed have the power, not the bosses. In addition, we must also understand the role of communist art as a tool of a communist party. For example, in the past leftist artists have performed sections of Brecht plays for striking workers, and theater practitioners like Augusto Boal developed techniques specifically designed to use art to radicalize workers. While art cannot change the world on its own, it can be an important tool to help inspire and urge the working class and oppressed to change the world. Capitalists and the artists they employ have spent centuries trying to convince us that this barbaric system is natural and everlasting, that our agony is the agony of existence, not the agony of exploitation. We must reject that. We know the barbarians have their art. Let us make a new one, a Marxist one.

Sybil is a trans activist, artist, and education worker in New York City.