Karl Marx is considered one of the most important social philosophers of the past two centuries, and among the most controversial -- even hundreds of years after his birth.
While the socialist thinker and activist was the nominal guiding light for the communist revolutions of the 20th century, his defenders note that the totalitarian excesses of the Soviet Union and Mao’s China were never part of Marx’s own philosophical agenda.
Among those who find Marx’s insights in works like Das Kapital relevant today are the curators of Marx@200, an art exhibit that opens this Friday at SPACE gallery, Downtown. Kathy Newman, an English professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and CMU art professor Susanne Slavick organized the big group show, which features work by 40 artists and artist groups from around the U.S. and the world.
While Marx’s writing can be heavy going for readers, many of these works are playful, and riff on Marx’s iconic, hirsute image. For instance, Ukrainian-born artist Nataliya Slinko offers an 8-feet-wide incarnation of Marx’s beard and mustache. An animation by Michael Mallis depicts Marx wielding a hammer while fighting Charles Darwin (a contemporary of Marx’s whose concept of “the survival of the fittest” was appropriated by 19th-century industrialists to justify their predations).
Other find ways to bring Marx’s insights on the value of labor, and labor’s relation to capital, into the present day.
For instance, there’s Blake Fall-Conroy’s “Minimum Wage Machine.”
“It's a plywood box that contains quite a number of pounds of pennies and you can set this minimum wage machine to the minimum wage in our state – Pennsylvania, $7.25 -- and it's quite difficult to crank – it’s quite boring and hard to crank, I think, just like a minimum wage job. But if you crank it for an hour it will give you seven dollars and 25 cents in pennies.”
Many of the works, Newman notes, reference the 2008 financial collapse, which many observers say has helped revive Marxist critiques of capitalism. Kathryn Clark’s “Foreclosure Quilt,” for instance, is a stitched urban map of foreclosed homes, block by block.
Newman says that the show is meant to generate reflection on Marx’s legacy.
“What I hope it might do is inspire people to go back and read Marx for themselves,” she said. “I think he's a really interesting writer. I think his writing is difficult but I think he has things to tell us about how our world works today.”
Newman herself said Marx's key insights include his analysis of the nature of the commodity.
"What Marx find in the commodity is this sort of cool packaged thing that seems to have this mysterious form, but inside that commodity Marx finds social relations, and ... exploitation -- that capitalism basically can't produce a profit without giving people less for their labor than they deserve."
The Marx@200 commemoration includes a companion lecture series at CMU.
SPACE is located at 812 Liberty Ave., Downtown.