|From top left to right: Erich Fromm, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Leo Löwenthal, Friedrich Pollock, Franz Leopold Neumann, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin.|
The Frankfurt School of philosophers, cultural critics and social scientists, the leading figures of which included Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Eric Fromm, Walter Benjamin and Jurgen Habermas, produced a number of philosophical and cultural analyses, inspired by the work of Kant, Hegel, Georg Lukacs, Max Weber and Freud. Attempting to develop a theoretical approach appropriate to the conditions of 20th century capitalism, they saw modern mass culture regimented and reduced to a commercial dimension and art as embodying a unique critical distance from the social and political world.
The theoretical work of the Frankfurt School, which Horkheimer designated as “critical theory” exerted a wide influence on subsequent cultural theory, especially Postmodernism. The critical theorist considers artists/scientists not as independent geniuses, but as conditioned by the political and ideological structures of society. While being self-reflexive, critical theory studies the ways in which knowledge is socially conditioned and recognises the power structures inherent in that conditioning.
Marx Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, in their seminal work, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1979), introduced the term “Culture Industry”, where they observed that “culture” is a product of social and economic conditions in any society, and that art, therefore, is not a ‘pure’ aesthetic realm but one which is produced and sold like other consumer goods.
Walter Benjamin argued in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction that art has been transformed by modern technology, stripping it of the “aura” of uniqueness that it possessed in the earlier eras. Modern and postmodern art forms are mere copies reproduced for mass consumption, that relate to no original meaning. However, Benjamin argues that this new status has given art has a revived political and subversive potential. The views of Horkheimer, Adorno and Benjamin anticipate the postmodern condition, where society would evolve beyond the phases of industrial and finance capitalism to consumer capitalism, where media and technology make possible the infinite reproducibility of the objects of art, thus diminishing art as only a product of the capitalist system, with little intrinsic value.