In the final section of the "Introduction" to the Grundrisse, Marx puzzles over what he sees as a disparity between the development of the material base of a society and the development of a people’s art.
It is known in the case of art that specific times of artistic flowering by no means stand in a proportional relation to the general development of society, therefore [they do not stand in a proportional relation] to the general development of the material basis, to the general development, as it were, of the bone-structure of its organization.
Marx specifically has ancient Greek society in mind, in which we find works of art whose beauty rivals that of contemporary works, and yet this society had not yet emancipated its social form of organization from nature. If we are to understand a people’s culture in accordance with the material conditions of production and reproduction of that society, should not the most advanced forces and relations of production coincide with the most beautiful works of art? Why should we find works of art that rival the moderns in a society where the division of labor is still confused with division into natural kinds (male and female, for instance)?
In his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, Friedrich Schiller noted a similar disparity between the flourishing of the arts and a people’s political freedom, which he generalized to all epochs.
And indeed it must give pause for reflection that in almost every historical epoch in which the arts flourish, and taste prevails, we find humanity at a low ebb, and cannot point to a single instance of a high degree and wide diffusion of aesthetic culture going hand in hand with political freedom and civic virtue, fine manners with good morals, refinement of conduct with truth of conduct. (10,4)
Schiller notes the inverse relation that appears to hold between the flourishing of art and political freedom. The Golden Age of Greek culture flowers only after the collapse of Greek democracy. The need for taste makes itself felt only under conditions where there is a relative lack of freedom, as though the former makes its appearance in order to stand in for the latter and hold its place while it is absent.
"It is known that Greek mythology is not only the arsenal of Greek art” Marx continues, “but [also] its ground."
All mythology controls and rules and forms the powers of nature in the imagination and through the imagination; therefore mythology disappears with actual domination over natural powers.
Mythology implicitly contains the domination of nature explicitly enacted by capitalism. The religious person sacrifices to the god in exchange for the god’s control over the portion of nature falling under his jurisdiction. By sacrificing to the god, he makes a deal whereby the god will hold back the destructive power of nature. Sacrifice is a form of indirect control. This is why we see the disappearance of mythology once it is possible for mankind to directly control nature. The purpose of mythology is extinguished with the actual domination of the world. Yet this form of total domination is possible only within the capitalist mode of production and the generalization of the value-form into a world system. The process of demythification presupposed by this system and extended by it replaces all the old, imagined forms of the domination of nature by actual, material ones.
Yet despite the fact that we have emancipated ourselves from the old forms of superstition, we continue to glance back at the art of the ancients as both a standard and an unrealizable ideal.
However, the difficulty does not lie in understanding that Greek art and epic are tied up with a certain social form of development. The difficulty is that they still give us artistic enjoyment and serve in a certain relationship as the norm and unreachable standard.
Our experience of ancient art, therefore, is an experience of beauty that is also tinged with melancholy and dissatisfaction. Though it is linked inextricably with a form of social development in which man is less free, art nevertheless presents an image of lost harmony which Marx directly associates with childhood.
A man cannot become a child again, or he becomes childish. But does not the naïvete of a child delight him, and must he not himself strive to reproduce its truth again at a higher level? Does not the character of every epoch revive true to its nature in the nature of the child? Why should not the historical childhood of mankind, where mankind is displayed at its most beautiful, exercise an eternal charm as a never-recurring stage? … Rather, [the charm] is the result of the art and is inseparably connected with the fact that the immature social conditions under which it originated, and alone could originate, can never recur.
When we glance back at childhood, we cannot help but think of it idealistically as a time when worry and the responsibilities inherent in freedom did not yet exist for us. But why should the most beautiful occur during a "never-recurring stage"? What have we parted with in the passage to modernity that is now accessible to us only through works of art? Beauty enjoyed is freedom bereaved, as Schiller pointed out. But then why do we cast a backward glance at beauty just as we become emancipated from the slavery and superstition of our pre-modern past? For Schiller, art is more than the placeholder of freedom; in modernity, it is also the placeholder of the lost authority of nature.
Humanity has lost its dignity; but Art has rescued it and preserved it in significant stone. Truth lives on in the illusion of Art, and it is from this copy, or after-image, that the original image will once again be restored … But not everyone whose soul glows with this ideal was granted either the creative tranquility or the spirit of long patience required to imprint it upon the silent stone, or pour it into the sober mould of words, and so entrust it to the executory hands of time.
“Significant stone” is nature that has been worked up by the artist into a beautiful form. It is nature as artist medium, nature as used directly in the work of art. A work is beautiful just in case the purpose of the artist dovetails with the medium in such a way that the union between form and content appears “natural”. Under such circumstances, nature appears as just the sort of thing to receive human purpose, whereas under ordinary circumstances, human ends appear at loggerheads with natural ones. But the confusion of natural and human purpose in ancient society is what made it unjust—the social and political roles men and women respectively played in ancient
Under conditions of modernity, art is our only access to nature as an independent source of meaning. Yet because the work of art is principally for enjoyment, it can lay no claim to truth or goodness. Its image of reconciliation is merely illusory. If nature appears as a source of meaning in the work of art, it must therefore appear as a lost source of meaning, as a source of meaning which no longer really exists. That is why our enjoyment of beauty is tinged with sadness.