The Frankfurt school of Marxist aesthetics is associated with the Institute of Social Research founded in 1923 and affiliated to the University of Frankfurt. During the Nazi period it was exiled (in 1933) to New York, from which it returned to Frankfurt in 1949-50. This school (whose chief spirits were Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse) rejected realism more or less completely and developed what is known as ‘Critical Theory”. They were much influenced by: (a) their experience of a totalitarian regime and Fascism; (b) their experience of American mass culture, capitalism and commercialism. Both the Nazi and American societies were regarded as “one-dimensional”.
Adorno advanced the theory that literature does not have direct contact with reality. He favored modernism in literature because it is ‘distanced’ from the reality it seeks to describe, and this ‘distancing’ enhances its critical reality. Thus, knowledge of reality is achieved indirectly or obliquely. As he put it: “Art is the negative knowledge of the actual world”. Horkheimer was in favor of the avant-garde (q.v.) and modernism because they are hostile to passivity, acquiescence and submission to the political and artistic status quo, and thus to any form of inhibitive or repressive ideology. Their views were worked out in terms of Marxist beliefs and principles. Marcuse works through the idea that the autonomous work of art negates a repressive society.