Marcuse’s Magic

The reluctant Father of the New Left nurtured ideas that boosted the reach of high art.

In the hippie days of yore, the German philosopher and critical theorist Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) rose to become a guru among those that sought for a radical alternative to the status quo. He did not exult on the title bestowed to him by popular decree, yet could not avoid having young free spirits quote his writings as prudes do from the Bible.

Marcuse explained from the onset in a taped interview why the generation that awoke to the reality check of the 1960s did not need a father figure. Flower Children from the Age of Aquarius were eye witnessing some of the worst devilries of their astrological cycle, and his analytical exorcism as a thinker in the right place and time happen to tally on their inquietudes.

Marcuse “Gets Down”

Counter to a widespread notion today, the 1960s protest movement never mustered but modest support in the United States, much of it tacit thanks to the thrust of the arts, or faith “in the magic that will set you free,” to borrow from Barry McGuire’s chant in his 1965 rock and roll hit. Marcuse likewise “got down” in his inclusive approach to high artistic expression through the latest of his books, The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics (1978).

Here he argues that art’s attempt to subtract itself from the miserable reality of our world succeeds insofar as it adds to envision a better one. That new “dimension” of life, where high techno-industrial production and art embrace in harmony, would rinse off artificial constraints, and hence lead civilization to a better stage of responsiveness.


One out of the barrage of theses that galvanized his youthful followers in bandana headbands denied that subjectivity or the right to inwardness entailed a bourgeois value. Escaping from an undesirable reality becomes in art an effective praxis to invalidate its systemic existence. Subjectivity engages by default passion, imagination and conscience against dog-eat-dog dialectics. Moreover, contends Marcuse, it reckons an individual’s micro history as independent from its macro counterpart.

History reveals in its sausage link patterning that advanced artistic styles tend to overlap somewhat revolutionary watersheds at the infrastructural level. Centuries of pagan art, for instance, soused Christian artists before they could gain a distinctive character in their work. Hence, the official aesthetic dictate from politburos saw that it would be absurd to allow the prevalent European Decadence inspire the flourishing of a proletarian State. Hardliners prescribed instead an abrupt re-start from scratch, which condemned to Marcuse’s chagrin some of the greatest achievements in Western art.

His defense of the individual, one of his strongest contending points with Marxist orthodoxy, de-centered as well the feminist agenda from clichéd fulcrums. The same principle applied to male liberation: “Not every problem someone has with his girlfriend is necessarily due to the capitalist mode of production,” he once snapped. The Aesthetic Dimension likewise assumes that art’s progressiveness need not rely on realistic representation, nor lose sleep over suspect counter-revolutionary subtexts. Beauty proper transcends the materiality from which it sallies out by proposing the need to hope based on a new state of consciousness.

Some “Heavy” Philosophy

Such sublimation in itself does not negate, but rather “accuses” reality. “That which is”, he wrote elsewhere, “cannot be true.” In other words, high art’s truth leans by its own nature to reveal the changing antagonistic structure of reality, and consequently challenges “that” which calls for understanding and resolution.

Bad intentions have never produced great art. Nor the best ever militates for any party, except the Party of Beauty, as even the opportunist daredevilry proto-fascist and therefore hollowed Gabriele d’Annunzio came to realize. Stanley Fish has argued in his Professional Correctness: Literary Studies and Political Change that plain wholesome goodness runs hand-in-hand with artistic value.

In an unfree society, Marcuse would broach, the measure of that value depends on the extent to which art reflects and contradicts unfreedom. An alignment of any sort—woman, man, black, white, bourgeois, working class—not necessarily speaks for the authenticity of a work of art. Artists must first achieve autonomy in their own truths while anchoring them in both, reality and its otherness. (Until this day, authorities in China, for example, police and ban science fiction precisely because the genre feeds solely on a suggested realm of life that Beijing construes as foreign to its aspirations.)

Re-Reading Marcuse

The trend Marcuse spearheaded became far from monolithic. Some shaky concepts of his (e.g., “repressive tolerance”, liberalism as tyranny, occasional psychologistic passages) and late advocacy for non-violent change within the Establishment further diverted original adherents. Many fell into primal rifts and remain forever frozen in time; others mutated upward to the corporate armchair and currently service the global neoliberal market. Meanwhile art has not ceased throughout history to emancipate humanity by its own crystal blue persuasion.

Over thirty years after The Aesthetic Dimension hit the bookshelves its re-reading may still refresh the neglected indictments voiced by standard classics as much as by obscenity and pornography. As the counterculture scene declined, radical elitism, non-identity, and the autonomous indifference between form and content in art continues to strive here for a superior order of needs.

For all his legit hecklers, falsehoods that give a for-granted air to death, assimilation, moral, security, reason, consciousness, sex, all dispelled then as if by magic in Marcuse’s writings. Wow, far out, the magic, man—Yeah, the magic, dig it, the magic that will set you free!

[July 30, 2011]

Top image: Comedy by Paul Klee, 1921

Photo: Sourced from Radio Sefarad, undated