To the question of “what is art?” it is often simply responded that art is whatever is produced by the artist. For John Molyneux, this clearly circular answer is deeply unsatisfying. In a tour de force spanning renaissance Italy and the Dutch Republic to contemporary leading figures, The Dialectics of Art instead approaches its subject matter as a distinct field of creative human labour that emerges alongside and in opposition to the alienation and commodification brought about by capitalism. The pieces and individuals Molyneux examines — from Michelangelo’s Slaves to Rembrandts Jewish Bride to the vast drip paintings of Jackson Pollock – are presented as embodying the social contradictions of their times, giving art an inherently political relevance.
In its relationship of creative and dialectical tension to prevailing social relationships and norms, such art points beyond the existing order of things, hinting at a potential future society not based on alienated labour in which creative production becomes the property and practice of all.