Banksy and Marxism

“The fact that works of art are connected historically with particular social structures does not mean that they lose their significance when these social structures disappear.” (Klingender, 1943)


According to K. A. Sutherland critical reflection is a crucial component of academic development which assists us with understanding the context of the contemporary artworks “beyond our own circumstances” (Sutherland, 2013, pp. 111-113). Thereby, such a statement allows for assumption that exploring and applying contrasting theories to diverse works of art helps one look outside the box as well as aids in revealing the concealed details allowing one to interpret certain piece differently from diverse perspectives.

Furthermore, thoughts and discussions that formed throughout history by philosophers and thinkers could yet be considered as another source of inspiration and a tool for modern artists.

One of the most mysterious artists – or as some say a “vandal” of popular culture – Banksy is famous for his extreme street-art works which in a shape of graffiti touch on world’s most controversial topics: politics, society, religion etc.

One of his most prominent works include a painting of “Christ with Shopping Bags” which was created in 2004 when the UK suffered from deteriorating economic plight (Owens, 2015). Even though some find the image disturbing and untruthful, it is believed that such radical choices made by Banksy aim to make people re-evaluate and think about the purpose of celebrating Christmas and the values the religion puts in pledge.

In order to get a better understanding and assess the impact of Banksy’s piece this essay will look at the artwork considering Karl Marx’s proposed theories on commodity fetishism and surplus value.

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Furthermore, fair consideration will be given to his views on social model and ideology to help author form a strong and clear conclusion on how Marxist beliefs affect our perception of art.

Marxism: Definitions and Beliefs

Ideology and Social Model

Karl Marx was a German philosopher, cultural commentator, journalist and a socialist revolutionary. He believed in the social function of art and placed it within the ideological part, which goes beyond the base, of his society model. The ideas he put in pledge into this concept show the relationship between the base and the superstructure, where the former refers to a set of historically defined production relations that make up the economic structure of the society and the latter represents Ideological Social Apparatuses (ISAs) including the government, law, religion and other forms of social consciousness (Althusser, 1984). According to Marx, the superstructure is conditioned by the base which determines the superstructure, its features, structure. Hence, the superstructure is not built arbitrarily, but in accordance with its base (Marx, 1976). Thus, a set of product relations that constitute the economic structure have a direct impact on the nature of the state including its artistic views and perspectives and hence, how we perceive this art.

Surplus Value

Marx’s notion of the surplus value also questions the capitalist society that is alienated into two key classes: the bourgeoisie and the working class (proletariat). According to the founder of Marxism surplus value is the value that is appropriated free of charge by the capitalist (Vygodsky, 2019). The profit that is according to Karl Marx is “the absolute law” of capitalistic society (Marx & Engels, 1909). It is created by the unpaid labour of a hired worker in excess of the value of his labour power (Vygodsky, 2019). Such a value presents a purely capitalistic form of exploitation where the excess produce becomes the surplus value and the profit of a middle class (Vygodsky, 2019). Therefore, Marx believes that the nature of capitalism is purely contradictory. The middle class strives to increase the profit they get while workers wish to be paid more for their labour. Hence, the interests and needs of both classes simply cannot be fulfilled.

Such a concept questions people’s views on capitalism and present social challenges as well as the arts. Perceiving an artwork through a prism of the idea of surplus value could potentially become a turning point in one’s political views. It can deepen the appreciation and understanding of the work, the context and the concept behind it as well as the value of things one owns and the hard work behind them.

Commodity Fetishism

Commodity Fetishism is yet another concept developed by Marx which explores the idea that social relations are created through the production and, through Capitalism, are defined by the objects rather than people. He claims that people are perceived as economic relations between products and are judged on the commodities they own where commodities take on ‘magical’ qualities and people come to be seen as ‘things’. Hence, a question rises regarding what art is within these extremes? Assuming art’s nature is such that it should be peculiar, how is one able to differentiate it from the ‘magical’ features that commodities offer to satisfy human wants? Therefore, such a concept allows for discussion on how it assists people’s understanding of art as it can be sold and bought just like commodities.

Therefore, author stresses to keep in mind the autonomy and freedom of art as its crucial feature, as claimed by T. Adorno, when analysing and differentiating art from a ‘mere’ commodity (Adorno, 2002). The idea that art should act purely as a way of self-expression and cannot be dictated nor dictate the audience. Hence, cannot be used as a way to promote and encourage the production defined social relations and should be self-governed to remain art. “When the social character of art overwhelms its autonomy, when its immanent structure explosively contradicts its social relations, autonomy is sacrificed and with-it art’s continuity” (Adorno, 2002).

Upon analysing these main concepts there is a clear key notion to be drawn for further analysis when applying Marxist approach to art. Such ideas imply for art to portray the conditions of contradiction and represent the changes in the economic base and the superstructure of the social model.

Banksy and “Christ With Shopping Bags”

Bearing in mind the theories and ideas described above this part of the paper will look at the artwork “Christ with Shopping Bags” by Banksy using Marxist approach in order to get a better understanding of this painting as well as how Marxism assists our perceptions.

Banksy is arguably the most controversial and mysterious street artist of this century. His works often touch on provocative topics such as politics, religion and war. “Christ with Shopping Bags” is one of his most controversial and famous paintings. It depicts a well-known scene of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ where the main Christian attribute – the cross – is missing. Instead, it appears as if he is kept hanging with multiple Christmas gift-bags ‘nailed’ to his hands.

With such an artwork, Banksy was trying to engage with the topic of consumerism and true religious values, bringing forward the superficiality and hypocrisy. Christmas is known as a “feast that commemorates the birth of Christ” (Merriam-webster, 2019). However, as the painting suggests, in our Capitalistic society it is no longer the time dedicated to celebrating religious values such as justice, compassion and thankfulness, but a time for mass consumption, where presents and gifts have a bigger value.

To emphasise that, the artist incorporates recognisable brands and their identity elements such as Mickey Mouse ears, candy cane, and famous Coca-Cola colours which also point at how this religious commemoration came to represent the growing consumerism and the commodity fetishism described by Marx. Furthermore, the effect of melting shown by the dripping paint could also symbolise the ephemeral satisfaction and happiness brought by the gifts emphasising the overrated value of material things (Hexagon Gallery, 2019).

On the other hand, if we look at Jesus not as a consumer, bearing in mind Marxist ideas on Surplus value and commodity fetishism, but as a representation of slave labour who is exploited and underpaid to produce these gifts which he would never be able to afford. This could be drawn from the facial expression, particular choice of body language as Jesus is crucified and the well-known notion that “Christ died for our sins” (Williams, 2019). Hence, when analysing this image, it could be that “Christ died for one’s right to consume, if one does not consume, then he died for nothing” (Chambers, 2015). Looking at this artwork while keeping in mind the social model described by Marx also emphasises people’s dependence on economy and the production of goods as well as how the superstructure and included ISAs consequently affect and encourage the economy to go further.

Banksy’s discontent towards the notion of product defined social relations is also supported by his attitude towards his art and the fact that what he makes is never sold by him, but is always open to all and never acts to promote consumerism, but to question it and challenge people’s perception of art. Therefore, perceiving this painting through different approaches like Marxism makes us see art as a medium between the art for art’s sake and art as a commodity. Art as an innovative autonomous way to express the shift between generations and social changes (Chambers, 2015).

Overall, by looking at this modern artwork from the perspective of Marxist ideas and theories development of which dates back to 19th century help the audience comprehend and see the real picture of how seemingly continuous and unremitting concepts such as religious feast, celebrated by millions, seem to be affected by Capitalism and the ideology that is impacted by the economy. Thereby, helping to reveal not only the meaning behind the artwork but also raising important topics within the society.


Marxism, as a movement and a set of theories can greatly affect the way we perceive the arts through deepening the understanding of the context behind it. In contrast to other beliefs and theories, it helps the viewer focus on the aspects not related to aesthetics such as colours, shapes and textures. Instead, it makes the audience think about the meaning and the history a certain piece tells about the time and place the work was created from the perspective of the society at the time. Therefore, presenting the history in a visual form. It helps one focus the attention on the message conveyed by the artist and perhaps points out and challenges the audience to discuss certain controversial topics in our society and see the portrayed contradictory within.

Upon conducting this analysis, it was found that both Banksy and Karl Marx share similar views regarding freedom of expression prioritising the social function of the arts rather than thinking of it as a way to gain economic profit. Hence, encouraging and endorsing art as a medium accessible for all, opening the world to new perspectives and ideologies.

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Banksy and Marxism. (2022, Jan 19). Retrieved from

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