On March 3, 2017, Jensen Suther interviewed Jay Bernstein, who teaches philosophy at the New School. Bernstein is the author of a number of books on art, ethics, and Critical Theory, which include The Fate of Art: Aesthetic Alienation from Kant to Derrida and Adorno (1992), Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics (2006), Against Voluptuous Bodies: Adorno’s Late Modernism and the Meaning of Painting (2007), and most recently, Torture and Dignity: An Essay on Moral Injury (2016). What follows is an edited version of the interview.
On October 11, 2016, Platypus hosted a forum entitled “Art and the Commodity Form” at Goldsmiths, University of London. The panel brought together Rex Dunn, independent Marxist and writer; Zhoe Granger, a director of the gallery, project space, and art publisher, Arcadia Missa; and Peter Osborne, editor of the journal Radical Philosophy and professor of Modern European Philosophy at Kingston University. Sophia Freeman of Platypus moderated the panel. What follows is an edited transcript of the event.
Famously, Clement Greenberg wrote in 1939 that the avant-garde is connected to the bourgeoisie by an “umbilical cord of gold.” This image has become so familiar that its peculiarities are rarely commented upon. The point is not simply the obvious one for Marxists, that art reflects the interests of a bourgeois class.
One of four panels held by the Platypus Affiliated Society at Left Forum 2014, from May 30th to June 1st, 2014.
Although the art world seemed mostly unscathed by the 2008 financial crisis and the Occupy movement, a notable focus on the art market and the power structures of the art world has emerged in the past few years. This trend has been visible in gallery and museum shows, which have taken on a more introspective, historical character and largely shied away from the overblown spectacle of years past, and in numerous articles in various media outlets, from niche blogs to the New York Times. Moreover, the language of the art world, from gallery or museum press releases and catalogs to reviews to lengthy theoretical articles, has long been steeped in Marxist cultural critique, although this influence mostly remains implicit, unstated, and perhaps unconscious. Ben Davis’s recent book, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, arrived as something of an anomaly in this atmosphere. A welcome anomaly, though, and one worth exploring further. What does a Marxist approach to contemporary art look like, separate from merely a critique of the art market or a preference for overtly “political” art? Davis and others have suggested that art’s true power lies in the utopian image of the figure of the artist, who embodies personally fulfilling labor, rather than art as such. This begs the fundamental question: what is the role of art itself in the contemporary landscape, and can this be separated from the structures (institutional and financial) in which it is embedded?
Platypus Review 58 | July 2013
Last spring, in response to Paul Mason's article “Does Occupy Signal the Death of Contemporary Art?,” the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted an event on the “death of art.” Speakers included Julieta Aranda who was represented by Anton Vidokle, Gregg Horowitz, Paul Mattick, and Yates McKee. The discussion was moderated by Chris Mansour and was held at the New School in New York on February 23, 2013. Complete video of the event can be found online at the above link. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Anton Vidokle: These are Julieta Aranda’s opening remarks: It was with a strange sense of déjà vu that I accepted the invitation to attend yet another funeral for art. Of course I have heard about all the previous ones, but this is the first time I have been invited to attend one. As an artist it is hard to understand the compulsion to establish our sense of art history through the recurrent announcements of “the death or art.” Art seems to be constantly dying, but we never talk much about its birth. It must have been stubbornly reborn on countless occasions, since we are here again, trying to measure its vital signs. I tried to do a bit of a research into the many deaths of art—but I was quickly overwhelmed: In one way or another, we have been trying to put art in a coffin and nail it shut for the past 2,000 years.
In the 1980s—during the art market boom—there were plenty of death calls: the death of painting, the death of modernism, and also the death of postmodernism. Meanwhile, the New York art market was very much alive, fueled by the usual suspects: speculators, investors, real estate developers, social climbers, and so forth. Of course as with everything that is artificially inflated, there was an eventual market crash, and this crash had many casualties. Many galleries disappeared, and many artists’ careers dried out. But this wasn’t understood to be the death of art as it had been previously announced.
I am skeptical about the Peter and the Wolf announcements of an imminent death of art –this time in its “contemporary” incarnation. For me, it is more interesting to question the favorable disposition—almost a wish—that we have towards the demise of art. The death sentence on contemporary art comes not only because the current operative model for contemporary art is deficient. (Under the current model, meaning is often quickly emptied out from objects and images, and market artists are a renewable resource.) But this wish also comes partly because we want a new big thing, we want the new thing to come now, and we want to be the new thing while the market is booming. As Hito Steyerl, a German video artist and writer, points out in her Kracauer Lecture, “The New Flesh: Material Afterlives of Images,” “To declare something over or dead is a form of production, that purposefully kills off something in order to launch new commodities or attract attention.”
To assume a one-to-one equivalence between contemporary art and the art-market for contemporary art—so that we can pass a summary judgment and quickly condemn it to death as an evil that needs to be eradicated—would be like holding a perfunctory trial, the outcome of which we know in advance.
What happens, in this case, to artistic practices that have no market value? And, what happens to art that is currently produced in situations where there is no market? Is this art not contemporary? Is this art also dying?
If we choose to talk about the art of the past 50 years only in the ways in which it has been coded by capital, we may be simplifying the body we are trying to find, and giving it an outline we can reject. Paul Mason’s recent article for the BBC refers exclusively to a contemporary art that is full of obscenely rich “concept artists,” whose work is executed by “minions” and subsequently, that artists involved in Occupy are pitted against a world described as “the white-walled gallery: with its air of non-committal, its preference for meaningless gesture, its reliance on interpretation by the viewer, and its extreme focus on commercialization.”
The problem is that, if we accept the above definition of contemporary art’s body, we are (again) defining this body; we are ready to bury it as that of a white male. In the interest of the art that I care for, I feel compelled to challenge that definition. While the structure of the gallery system is indeed troublesome, to use it as a synonym for all of the contemporary artistic practices outside of the work of the artists affiliated with Occupy would be a gross misrepresentation; more so, it would be one that persists in depicting the West, and specifically New York, as the center of the world. While this is true for New Yorkers, it is not necessarily true for everybody else.
We could go ahead and declare that contemporary art, as we know it, is dead or dying, and replace it with the next new black: today, Occupy; tomorrow, something else. But to be ready to broadly dismiss contemporary art in a summary gesture, replacing it entirely with a “new” understanding of art that is advocating an obligatory commitment to explicit leftist political ideologies and a sense of social purpose, doesn’t actually sound so new to me. Hasn’t this conversation been going on continuously since the 1920s?
In fact, it makes me think of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and of Cambodia’s Year Zero, or of Plato’s position towards poets in the Republic:
But, for our own good, we ourselves should employ a more austere and less pleasure-giving poet and story-teller, one who would imitate the speech of a more decent person and who would tell his stories in accordance with the patterns we laid down when we first undertook the education of our soldiers.
Good intentions aside: isn’t this model slightly prescriptive?
As far as it goes to meaning in contemporary art, when I see the work of artists like Walid Raad or Jimmie Durham or Katerina Seda, what I see is the ways in which they successfully smuggle into the dominant narrative of histories and images what would otherwise would not be accessible. I do not consider their practice less meaningful just because they enjoy a considerable degree of success, and I certainly appreciate the histories and images that they smuggle in that retain all of their original political complexity and their uncomfortable qualities, without being flattened or prepackaged into ready-to-eat morsels.
It is extremely problematic that there is a financial apparatus currently rigged around contemporary art—since it may be the biggest instance of an art market that has ever been in operation. On top of this, the concomitant professionalization of the art system, which aims at feeding this market through a proliferation of expensive art schools and training programs put in place to train domesticable and reliable artists that can produce viable commodities, only adds fuels to the fire.
However, it is possible to understand to a certain degree the willingness of certain artists, but not all, to enter this problematic situation. It has been tacitly agreed that artists shouldn’t concern themselves with money. And while the idea of making a living from art is interpreted as being morally corrupt, there is no alternative system in operation to guarantee the welfare of artists. Artists who “sell out” are bad. But if they refuse to do that, then what happens to them? How are they supposed to make a living? It has always been unclear to me how are artists supposed to take care of mundane needs such as paying rent, going to the dentist, having dinner, and taking a child to the doctor.
The current conditions of production of art are dire. There has been a shrinking of unpredictable spaces, an erosion of relationships that are not professional, and a disappearance of a bohemian and non-domesticated world. This may be a temporary condition, only applicable “while the market lasts”, but it is a damaging condition nonetheless, a condition that could render the soul homeless.
As I look at the shape-shifting body of art on its contemporary inception—a body that doesn’t seem to fit its coffin or even its own definition—it has become clear to me that contemporary art may not be as simple as the single thread constructed that we try to collect as a digestible unit. Art produced today has many paradigms, some of them depleted, others full of potential. Art will transform, as it always has historically, and become something other than contemporary; an art that we don’t know yet—and which we will only know when it has arrived. Instead of a coffin, with all of its irreversible solemnity, it may be better to make sure that there are fertile conditions in place for the new art to come.
The patient will live! Let’s build a better world for her.
Paul Mattick: I will begin with Paul Mason’s suggestion that “Occupy signaled the death of contemporary art.” Since Occupy’s wonderful but short life has been over for some time, while contemporary art is rolling on, with its full panoply of artists, dealers, writers, auctions, museums, and collectors, the obvious response to this is, “No.” Mason’s own article confirms this, as it focuses on an Occupy activist turning, once the movement has been dispersed, to market her agitprop effort as contemporary art. On the other hand, one should beware of the obvious answer, and I will take another look at this question at the end.
It will be useful to define the chief term under discussion, or at least give my definition, so that we can know if and when we are talking about the same thing. “Art,” since it evolved in Europe in the late 18th century, has been the name for a social practice of valuing—and of collecting, making, attending to, and displaying—objects and performances capable of signifying the discernment of those who appreciate them. In a smaller mouthful, art gives body to taste and so makes it visible. The exercise of taste for artworks, like the exercise of choice, attests to the chooser’s freedom from necessity, or at least to a willingness to disregard it. “Necessity,” in the commercial culture that came into existence with modern society, means above all a concern with money—making it and spending it. Art developed its enormous importance within capitalism, the first culture in history to be dominated by the use of money, because it provides a social space for demonstrating freedom from commercial necessity. Art, the opposite of wage labor and capitalist entrepreneurship alike, is work done for love, not money; its collection and enjoyment signify a spiritual set of interests, raising the art-lover above the material concerns of “everyday life.” It is this that makes art so valuable and expensive.
Thus, in the 19th century, art allowed the newly ascendant bourgeoisie to claim the mantle of social superiority formerly worn by the landed aristocracy for whom paintings, architecture, music, dance, etc. had been not art but part of the paraphernalia of daily life. In the 20th century, “modern” art spoke for the claims of bourgeois society to have established values of its own, with, for instance, the motorcar sometimes supplementing and sometimes re-embodying the classic grace of the Parthenon.
The ascendancy of the United States, a self-made country without a feudal past, after World War II produced a new twist in the modernist version of art. While a turn-of-the-century magnate like J.P. Morgan still looked to Europe for the artworks required to show that America had arrived, post-war art-lovers, and indeed the American government itself, found the highest stage of artistic development in the new American art. This bourgeoisie, an American one, lacked the bad conscience of its forebears; now the most avant-garde art—originally produced to mark the distance between the artist and the bourgeois—became the official art of business society.
At various points in this long trajectory, the idea has arisen that art could come to an end. In the early 1800s, famously, when art was just beginning, Hegel believed art would, like religion, cede its cultural significance to philosophy; alas, I speak from the perspective of a professional philosopher: Philosophy has turned out to be of negligible cultural significance compared to art. The radical upheavals following World War I gave rise to various forms of the idea that the revolutionary transformation of daily life might lead to the absorption of art, in the form of industrial design, into life. Such ideas were encouraged by the habit of looking at art as pursuing an autonomous, unified history, with one “school” succeeded another “school”: a history directed, following the Hegelian model, towards the realization of a goal can be imagined to reach some sort of end when the goal is attained.
The success of “advanced” art in the post-war period gave rise to the related idea of the “death of the avant-garde.” An idea with much truth to it, since after 1960 the avant-garde system, with critics and other cultural intermediaries alerting maverick collectors to the masterpieces of the future, did in fact break down. The critics almost uniformly hated Pop art, but collectors bought it anyway, and soon the critics had to like it. With avant-gardism’s demise, the pluralism of the art world gradually became unmistakable, though attempts were made to hold it at bay by defining new avant-gardes, especially by academic writers and art historians like the members of the October circle. But, whatever the success of this attempt in academia, the art world saw the death of the critic, as control over taste was exercised by curators, auctioneers, and collectors themselves.
This process cannot be fully understood without reference to the development of capitalism itself in the same period. The crisis of the mid-1970s announced the end of the great post-war economic boom. Henceforth capitalism’s dynamism shifted increasingly away from productive investment towards financial speculation. We all know the results: the globalization of capital, on the one hand, and growing inequality in the distribution of wealth, on the other. With a new international elite concentrating a hitherto unknown share of the world’s wealth in its hands. Art—museum and gallery art, at any rate (the situation is rather different for art music)—became basically a possession of the global one percent, albeit a luxury good whose value still requires general visibility and appreciation.
What might be said above all to have met its death as this state of affairs developed is the role of educated people, whom Pierre Bourdieu called “the dominated fraction of the dominating class,” as the arbiters of cultural value. This is part of a general devaluation of the thing once celebrated as “culture,” manifested in such phenomena as the decline of liberal arts education and growing un- and under-employment of the educated, now condemned by the new terms of a credit-enabled capitalism to lifelong debt peonage. This has had effects directly for artists, and one of the interesting things, which was mentioned in Aranda’s comments, is the material disappearance of bohemian life: cheap rent, affordable studios, and so forth.
Occupy was above all the protest of this social fraction: the devalued educated. As such it was, as a friend observed to me, a symptom of the same condition which has given rise to talk of the death of art: the end of art as a cultural possession of the educated middle class. This neither means that art is over, as the social practice that has been with us for the last three centuries, nor that people will stop making things and performances for a wide variety of purposes, inside and outside the art world proper. It does mean that the conditions of art making and appreciation have altered in important ways that it would be well worth taking some time to try to understand.
Yates Mckee: Since there's a tone of morbidity and death and loss in the air, I wanted to read from Tidal 4, a piece called “On Love, Loss, and Movement”:
We came to the park in mourning.
We had lost so much. We turned mourning
into militancy and felt awakened. We
discovered that all was not past, that there
was a present in which we might live. We
cracked history open, and time seemed full.
Everything was happening in the Now.
Then came the eviction, and we were
dispersed. In the aftermath of the park, we
mourn what was lost. We know that we can
never fully separate from it. It is inside us,
it haunts us, it speaks to us. We are bound
by it. But it does not tie us down to the past.
The beloved whispers: “you must learn to
This means letting go of that perfect
future where all the wrongs will be right.
That future will always be postponed, not
yet open, unavailable--and thus an object
of melancholic sadness in advance. We do
not wait and lament.
The storms of Wall Street are unrelenting.
It is what they call progress. There is no
shelter, no park, where we can ride this
out. We have to learn to live in the open.
There comes a moment when we know
that we can’t go on. But we go on. It’s easy
to break up. To continue with love is hard.
Don’t be afraid. Don’t look back.
I do think there is a crisis surrounding the death and definition of contemporary art and its identity. I am intrigued by this question of ends, deaths, and finalities, but it does seem to risk making that into a grand tradition—the negative dialectic of death and rebirth. On the one hand, we want to avoid any apocalyptic declarations, since we know that is naïve. On the other hand, it should still be possible to try to describe and account for a break. Recently in the U.S., Occupy opened up space to rethink the nature of cultural practice, of the relationship between art and politics, in ways that were anticipated by the most exciting currents in contemporary art. At the moment, some of the taken-for-granted protocols of contemporary art have fallen apart, but that doesn't mean there is no more art.
Here is a little dialectic image: “the people's library” at Zucotti Park in October of 2011. The librarian created an arts and culture section, where you could read a copy of October magazine devoted to “the contemporary” from 2010. On the right is a copy of the Occupy Wall St Journal that is being displayed on the wall at MoMA, with the special poster edition, with designs by Josh MacPhee, Paul Chan, and other contemporary artists. What does it mean for the history of the avant-garde to pop up in an avant-garde political practice, and vice versa, what does it mean for cultural products of that movement to end up back in MoMA—even after MoMA had been a site of struggle for Occupy with the struggle and lockout of the Sotheby’s workers.
Much of Occupy was anticipated, consciously and unconsciously, in a lot of the most interesting contemporary art of the past ten years: Thomas Hirschhorn, Sharon Hayes, and the whole field of social practices. It is not as if Occupy came about as a movement and then artists came along and got involved. In fact, artists were deeply involved from the very beginning of Occupy in August 2011, and their involvement has to do with opening a space of imagination, something absent from the Left in the US for a long time.
The magazine Tidal provided the impetus for post-May Day organization. A series of assemblies emerged that started discussing the possibility of making debt the focus of our political movement. Like Occupy, people having conversations in public space, with the crucial feature that people psychologically and emotionally were able to “come out” and to have a testimonial experience. This was a groundbreaking moment in getting “strike debt” in motion. Student debt was a key focus, but we also addressed the housing and mortgage crisis, which were central to the concerns of Occupy.
Tidal is also an example of a practice that artists started in which the visual, aesthetic, and graphic elements are really crucial. But it doesn't define itself in terms of art. It takes advantage of artistic platforms, cultivates an ongoing dialogue with the art world, and mobilizes its resources. It is not like art is dead, and now we have a new avant-garde with Occupy, but it is a spectrum. It was a tactical choice to engage with art, which can be very critical and productive, and breaks us out of a frame when it becomes one of the primary platforms for the intellectual discourse of the movement.
How do we visualize something as abstract as debt, as something that is embodied and very immediate? How do debtors respond to one another in an image, experience, assembly, slogan? How does that become a new kind of political identity? An important development in the iconography of strike debt was borrowing the red square from the Québec students. The red square was taken as an emblem of us all being in the “red,” that is, subjugated to debt. It was a uniform symbol that took the form of a wearable piece of felt, so that it was actually very bodily, intimate, tactile, but also irregular and unifying, as it links the bodies of the debtors to others.
We know we are not going to be able to pay off our debts; and we are scared and isolated. What does it mean to embrace that as a common condition, and turn it into a militant refusal of the debt system? The actual gesture of burning the debt symbol becomes a performative ritual on the part of the debtors. Over the summer there were debt burning rituals that were incorporated into the assembly at the one-year anniversary of Occupy.
All the aesthetic, artistic, and symbolic dimensions of strike debt are interwoven with analysis, publishing efforts, actions, and assemblies and that is what is qualitatively new, in terms of the contemporary artistic field. The elaboration of non-expert amateur props, these are aesthetic experiments, which, with the support of the institutional and formalized art world, such as the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, the Creative Time Summit, and artists like Martha Rosler, help secure resources and plug in more people. The point is that these are practices and ideas grounded in the experimental laboratory that is contemporary art.
Gregg Horowitz: It is unclear to me why the concept of the death of art even matters. Does anybody organize their practice, in light of this concept, any longer? Yates’s presentation affirmed that, for me, there is almost nothing going on there, you have a break, an end, but the idea of death has sort of vanished. If the death of art is not all that useful in the self-understanding of contemporary art practice, what about the “art” concept? Let’s just suppose, art is dead, and what that means is that we cannot understand our practices in light of that concept. Why is it so hard to give up a concept, the passing of which has been noted in various ways?
Giving up the concept turns out to be hard, and we do not give up the concept by holding on to another concept, which is that of the death of art. That is the way in which we hold on to the concept of art. Although I have written probably too much on the death of art, I find the concept increasingly inscrutable. I know what it means for a cultural practice to cease being meaningful, either because it falls out of the cultural repertoire, as is happening to the practice of striking film prints of movies, which will make a difference in how we experience movies, or because it becomes mere routine, like saying “Have a good day” at the end of a conversation.
If you listen to that set of words these days, they are at a state of involution. It is the sound of routinization of what was a meaningful cultural practice. But that can’t be the meaning of art being dead, since art has become practically inescapable in recent years and, while the interpretation and consumption of it can’t keep up with the flow of product, the increasing volume of interpretation and consumption indicates that the practice of art has not become merely one of routine.
The near ubiquity of art and its products in our everyday worlds must be what is behind the peculiar thought expressed in Paul Mason’s article that the aesthetic and artistic dimensions of Occupy somehow signal the death of contemporary art. Although the significance of Occupy has yet to play itself out enough for anyone to draw a conclusion about its consequences, one would think that, with its openly political ambitions, what it would represent the end of would be, say, the hegemony of neoliberalism. How one could come to care instead about the impact of Occupy on the gallery system is, on the face of it, risible. But art is not simply ubiquitous. It is like kudzu: where anything grows now, art grows, too, and faster. But this is a sign that art is not a dead practice but rather a fervidly, strappingly healthy one. Such was also the sentiment expressed by the Dadaists when they declared, for instance, “Die Kunst is tot! Es lebe die neue Maschinenkunst Tatlins!” The practice in the name of which art is declared dead, the practice liberated by the death of art, is machine-art. “Art is dead! Long live art!”
Art is unkillable.
But what I find most inscrutable about the sentiment is not the superficial thought that art is dead but the underlying thought that art ever was alive. Although Hegel never said that art had died, but rather that it was and remained on the side of its highest destiny a thing of the past, which is a much different thought, he nonetheless revealed that the myth of living works of art was an essential part of the way the practice of art lives on in its post-classical “after-life,” in the age, that is, of its self-awareness as a practice with its own, autonomous values and ambitions. It is a mythic fate that art throws on to its past. From this point of view, it becomes thinkable that the supposed life of art is a backward formation that enables art to die again and again, to remain, in other words, perpetually undead, so that post-artistic practices can remain vital in evading the same fate. The death of art is, we might say, a meme of contemporary artistic consciousness in which is distortedly expressed a discontent with the increasing artistic encrustation of the contemporary world. Better: not just as a meme, it is a zombie idea and, since the content of the idea is zombiehood itself, it is a meta-zombie idea whose importance lies not in its truth-value as such but in its special place in zombie self-reflection.
Because zombies have become ubiquitous in contemporary culture—nearly as ubiquitous as art, but not quite—there is something both cheap and meta-meta in my recruiting them into the project of making the death of art intelligible, of metabolizing it, and digesting it. But the contemporary zombie figure is actually a pretty good image for the undeadness of art. The zombie was a figure of Vodun magic, a dead person reanimated by witchcraft; scary, but really nothing more than an embodiment of Benjamin’s idea that we live in an age when not even the dead are safe. But the contemporary zombie is not just reanimated. It is back for blood. To the return of the dead we have added undying hunger.
Death is the radical outside of hegemonic systems that pretend to close off all alternatives. As radical outsideness, death offers the prospect of nothing but hope. But the figure of the zombie undermines even this source of hope, for where death is, there old needs gather and swarm. For us, not even death represents hope.
There is another way to understand the contemporary flesh-eating zombie precisely as a figure of hope. The zombie is embodied need when need’s fateful entry into the web of social norms is taken off the table.
There is a new zombie movie called Warm Bodies in which apparently zombies can fall in love. The zombie is the figure that embodies our horror at human need, that it may not be adequately mediated by social norms. But one might turn that right around and say that that’s precisely what’s hopeful about the figure of the zombie, for in it we imagine a moment of hunger utterly outside of social appropriation. The zombie, in this sense, represents the conjunction of social death and undying human need, the conjunction that, for the Marxist left, has been expressed in the thought that the proletariat is simultaneously the inside and outside of capitalism; the conjunction of social death and that dying need. The zombie will not lay down its need in exchange for a bag of food. It wants life, which is the one thing it cannot have. The zombie, in this light, is a figure which both embodies the limit of a social order and the imagination of its recommencement.
And so with art: the undeadness of art rests not on an earlier life, but rather on our need to imagine the outside of what we have now, to hope for it, in the form of what cannot die.
What about practices that reference past political movements—what the posters looked like in the Bolshevik Revolution, for example, or the aesthetic of the 1960s New Left? It seems like there are deliberate attempts to reference the past even though, as Yates put it, “we are not [invested in] looking back”, and called saw Occupy as a break, as something fundamentally new. But what is the importance in this refusal to look back, especially because we still live in capitalism, and there are no revolutionary politics to speak of right now.
YM: The importance of historical memory and intergenerational dialogue can be overstated and that is clear in Tidal and in Occupy. What my generation drew as lessons from the past came from movements like ACT-UP, the Black Panthers, and radical labor struggles. When I say that we must resist looking back, that is really about resisting melancholy, of recognizing where things are now: the occupation in the parks was a crack, a rupture, and created a new kind of space. But now we no longer have the park and it is not a moment that we can ever really recreate. We want to talk about it in terms of the principle of direct action, of living and caring for one another without the mediation of the state, without the mediation of capital, as something that really intervened in the taken-for-grantedness of capitalism, of people being alone and isolated, and generating an opening up of the imagination of about how to live differently. It is pre-figurative politics. People will say that Occupy changed the conversation, it changed the horizon of inequality, but it is not just about that. Occupy is also about practicing an alternative form of living relative to one another. That is were the resistance comes in. It is also about the actual practice: how you do it.
The point about not looking back is to not be nostalgic for the park, for that moment of everyone being physically present. But it is also about the Left’s melancholy for the whole Left. The whole Left is also attached to lost ideals. Its identity is often parasitically dependent on the fact that things don’t dramatically change. That’s something Occupy really disrupted. Not looking back does not mean, don’t be historical, don’t remember, but rather, don’t be dominated by the past, whether the past of Occupy, or the past of the Left, because the Left tends toward melancholy fixation.
GH: Then the question “If art will be possible in the absence of the Left?” becomes, I think, really pressing. Which itself seems to beg a sort of interesting question, which is not what we mean by art, by the death of art, but what do we mean by the Left? And I want to ask this in a non-melancholic spirit. If nostalgia for the park is already on the horizon—how long ago was this? The fact is that Occupy, which is admirable in all sorts of ways, is not yet a political movement. If a year is a space on which nostalgia can perch, then we don’t have a politics here. I want to make this point broadly: what it means to say that the Left is attached to melancholy. The problem is not that we lack revolutionary politics. We should be so lucky to lack that. What we lack is politics, period. It is that simple. And we don’t know how to make sense of the way in which the political spectrum has collapsed around us. This may be a break, this may be something new, naked capitalism, but it is capitalism without a political emphasis. But if there is no contradiction being given form, then the prospect of giving form, that I take many of us care about, is not even on the table. So we are going to get really great posters and banners, but that next development in which there is a kind of outer politics, that still seems to me un-approached. I hope Occupy becomes nostalgia. Let that nostalgia flower at this moment.
In regards to how what appears as new is actually old, how might we understand that dynamic, in light of the domination of capital in a society that repeatedly subsumes the appearance of the new as it flares up? How can we understand this dynamic of old and new in terms of the possibility of political organization or the actual new?
PM: This is the big problem of human history. To paraphrase Marx: the past hangs like a millstone around our necks. People made the French Revolution; they imagined that they were ancient Greeks and Romans. People try to act politically in the 21st century; they think about Lenin and the storming of the Winter Palace. This is the value in the disappearance of historical memory. In a way, the extinction of the Left of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century brings its own loss, because something can be learned from historical inheritance, but it also clears the way for people to think in new ways. One of the fabulous things about Occupy was the total irrelevance of the past left, of the history of the Left, from its discussions and actions. No one was trying to form a new revolutionary party or argue about reformism verses revolutionary activity.
GH: The issue of how to save Western culture is not about saving what is on the table anymore but about asking what is on the table that might be worth destroying. That is, whether there is any orientation we can derive from it, that will allow is to see our way through the present, to give our politics a structure, to give our politics some normative force, or something like that. There is something very odd about the state of aesthetic discourse right now. Everyone is scrambling for a normative orientation. But I think we should step back for a moment and at least entertain the possibility that we cannot discern that and ask what a normative orientation would mean right now. So, as you say, you can declare art dead right now. Go ahead, do it, I give you permission. The problem is you get nothing from it. The juice in declaring it over has dried up.
YM: Imagine this: suddenly people in Occupy say, “That is beautiful.” You see some shit and say, “That is a beautiful action and that is a beautiful banner.” It is like militant beauty, militant Left, and it is a new thing. I want to redefine the notion of beauty. I am not scared that the aesthetic is going to fuck up the politics, because the politics are happening, and there is a new space for aesthetics.
AV: Isn’t the aestheticization of politics fascism? How is your proposal not the same thing?
YM: Well that was the Benjaminian argument. It totally makes sense with something like Triumph of the Will. It is the fact that aesthetics and politics are inseparable. It is not a fascist Gesamtkunstwerk, but the fact that there are moments we experience and feel that appear in a modern mode deeply embedded in our project. Benjamin would be the dialectical counterpart. That is the danger, to fall into the aestheticization of politics, in the old sense. The new sense of aesthetics and politics is not fascist and awful, but actually, “Oh my god that is a beautiful demonstration.” Is it fascist to say that?
PM: What people miss about the death of art is that utopian moment: The idea of the merging of art in everyday life, not the fact that art is not with us as an aspect of the disappearance of the Left. It seems to me that the counterpart to that is the treatment of Occupy as an aesthetic event, as a piece of performance art. It is a very striking idea. But not an accurate one. The American version is more prone to branding and aestheticization. But if you put Occupy into the international context, it seems to be part of a much larger social movement, like in Greece, which is in fact too large and too political to be contained by these aesthetic categories. But the fact that it so quickly turned into an aestheticized object is a sign of the present day weakness of the politics. This seems to be a call to deepen the political aspects of it.
GH: We are in a moment when our political weakness is being tested all over. But so too is the strength therefore of a kind of quasi-autonomous aestheticizing mechanism. Stuff gets turned into spectacle; it is not a deliberate tactic on anybody’s part because they are not apparently depoliticized. It just becomes spectacular so immediately. Tom Finkelpearl, the director of the Queens Museum, who works with all sorts of social practice art, asked me a question I never thought of asking myself, “Why does everyone want to know, is it art? Why does that question matter?” But it does matter; it’s kind of a driving question. It brought to mind a perspective of one of the originators of social practice art, Gordon Matta-Clark, although he did not have the concept for it at the time. Now I hate going to galleries because I am afraid I am going to be fed the art. I feel I am in some bizarre version of degenerative politics: here is the stuff itself, eat it. And the concept oddly becomes so robust, that it is almost hard to think about social practice without thinking about art, or political practice. |P
Transcribed by Chris Mansour and Bret Schneider
. Hito Steyerl, “The New Flesh: Material Afterlives of Images,” available online at http://www.kracauer-lectures.de/en/sommer-2013/hito-steyerl/.
. Mason, “Occupy.”[]
. Plato, Republic, trans. C.V.C Reeves (New York: Hackett, 2004), §398b.
A talk and guided discussion held at Left Forum 2013, at Pace University, on June 8th, 2013.
If it is true that the 'commodity-structure' (Lukacs) is the defining feature of modern capitalism down through the present, then it stands to reason that it has no less impacted the way art is produced, consumed, circulated, and exchanged. This shift in art's character happened both objectively (e.g., as in an article produced for exchange on the market), and subjectively (i.e., as a kind of experience and form of expression for the social and individual body). However, art's relationship to its status as a commodity is an ambivalent one: Art has become at once more free from past forms of domination, but its freedom is constrained when subject to the dynamics of capital. Art as a commodity is both its cure and poison, and has become a social problem for its practice. Since becoming aware of this problem, artists, philosophers, curators, and critics have taken various approaches in seeking to overcome it. How has art under a capitalist society changed from its pre-capitalist practices? What is the commodity-form, and what is art's relationship to its logic? Must art seek emancipation from the commodity-form, or is it at home in it? In what sense does art take part in the Left and emancipatory politics -- a practice also seeking to overcome the commodity-form -- if at all? By asking these questions, this panel seeks to reinvestigate art's relationship to the commodity form, and make intelligible how this problematic relationship still sticks with us today.
1. How do you define the terms ‘art,’ and ‘commodity?’ In what ways does art in capitalist society differ from art in precapitalist society? How would you posit the relationship between art and the ‘commodity-structure’ of capitalism? Is art already a commodity from the start, or does it get ‘commodified’ only when integrated in the market? Are there ways that art can resist its commodification, and if so, how?
2. Acknowledging that the issue of art and commodity is not a new question, what troubles this discourse today? How has art’s relationship to the commodity-form changed over time, and what does it look like now? Do we understand the problem better than our predecessors, or are we in a worse mode of understanding?
3. If emancipatory politics is the objective, does overcoming capitalism necessarily follow the abolition of art’s status as a commodity? Do contemporary attempts in ‘dematerialized’ or ‘process-based’ art practices (e.g., social practice, pedagogical projects, or institutional critique) challenge the commodity status of the art object, and if so, how? Should art even seek emancipation from the commodity? In what sense does art take part in the Left and emancipatory politics -- a practice also seeking to overcome the commodity-form -- if at all? 4. How do you position yourself as cultural production within this dialogue? If this is a question about the work of arts’ mode of production in society, and opens up the question of class, then in what ways specifically does your work—or other contemporary art work—respond to class consciousness? What role does criticism or art play towards an emancipatory politics?
A moderated panel discussion hosted by the Platypus Affiliated Society held on Friday, May 24, 2013 at the Eyelevel Gallery in Halifax.
In conjunction with the Annual Y-Level Exhibition ("And all sat mute")
Please Note: Due to technical problems, the ending of the event for both audio and video is cut off.
If it is true that the 'commodity-structure' (Lukacs) is the defining feature of modern capitalism down through the present, then it stands to reason that it has no less impacted the way art is produced, consumed, circulated, and exchanged. This shift in art's character happened both objectively (e.g., as in an article produced for exchange on the market), and subjectively (i.e., as a kind of experience and form of expression for the social and individual body). However, art's relationship to its status as a commodity is an ambivalent one: Art has become at once more free from past forms of domination, but its freedom is constrained when subject to the dynamics of capital. Art as a commodity is both its cure and poison, and has become a social problem for its practice. Since becoming aware of this problem, artists, philosophers, curators, and critics have taken various approaches in seeking to overcome it.
How has art under a capitalist society changed from its pre-capitalist practices? What is the commodity-form, and what is art's relationship to its logic? Must art seek emancipation from the commodity-form, or is it at home in it? In what sense does art take part in the Left and emancipatory politics -- a practice also seeking to overcome the commodity-form -- if at all? By asking these questions, this panel seeks to reinvestigate art's relationship to the commodity form, and make intelligible how this problematic relationship still sticks with us today.
A panel held by the Platypus Affiliated Society on Saturday, February 23rd, 2013, at the New School.
Transcribed in Platypus Review #58 (Click below to see):
The “death of art” has been a recurring theme within aesthetic and philosophical discourse for over two centuries. At times, this “death” has been proclaimed as an accomplished fact; at others, artists themselves have taken the “death of art” as a goal to be accomplished. So while this widely perceived “death” is lamented by many as a loss, it is celebrated by others as a moment of life renewed. For them, art is all the better for having disburdened itself of the baggage of outmoded modernist ideologies. Insofar as the “death” of longstanding cultural traditions has in the past typically been understood to signal a deeper crisis in society at large, however, the meaning of death necessarily takes on a different aspect today — especially when the tradition in question is modernism, the so-called the “tradition of the new” (Rosenberg). Because the notions of “death” and “crisis” appear to belong to the very edifice of modernity that has just been rejected, these too are are to be jettisoned as part of its conventional yoke. Modernity itself having become passé, even the notion of art’s “death” would seem to have died along with modernism.
We thus ask our panelists not merely whether art is at present “dead,” but also if traditions are even permitted the right to perish in conservative times. If some once held that the persistence of philosophy indicated the persistence of obsolete social conditions, does the persistence of art signal ongoing social conditions that ought to have long ago withered away? If so, what forms of political and artistic practice would be sufficient to realize art, and in what ways would realizing art signal something beyond art? Marx felt that the increasing worldliness of philosophy in his time (heralded by the culmination of philosophy in Hegel) demanded not only the end of philosophy, but also that the world itself become philosophical. If avant-garde movements once declared uncompromising war on art in order to tear down the barrier between art and life, would the end or overcoming of art not similarly require that the world itself become artistic?
1) Recently, Paul Mason of the BBC claimed that Occupy signals the death of contemporary art. This seems to articulate a general and significant (if vague) sensibility that certain artistic claims and theories over the past half century have become untenable. Is contemporary art dead today, and if so, what specifically has died? Is it art as such that has died, or just its present configuration? Even if art is not dead, then what is the significance of claims that it is? What has changed, and what new forms may be opening up for art in its alleged “death”?
2) If Occupy does have anything to do with the art’s death, then what extent does the idea of the “death of art” participate in extra-aesthetic, non-artistic discourses (e.g. is this claim social or artistic in nature)? Is the “death of art” related to other post-mortem diagnoses of the deaths of particular feilds in social life, such as the “end of history,” “end of ideology,” or figures of thought such as the postindustrial, the postmodern, the post-political? How does Platypus’ slogan “The Left is Dead! — Long Live the Left!” relate to the claim of the death of art, if at all? If the Left is truly dead, would this have any repercussions for the vitality of art? Would art even be possible in the absence of the Left?
3) Given the many deaths art is said to have gone through over the past 200 or so years — and its “death” would seem to have meant many different things depending on the situation at various moments — what does the narrative of the “death of art” look like to us from our current historical vantage point? Has art been successfully self-consciously killed, or fulfilled, or has art died due to a failure to complete its project? Adorno famously remarked that it is not entirely clear whether art can still claim a right to exist, even more calling into question whether our times are worthy of art in the first place. If this idea has any purchase today, then would it be a fair judgment to say that the declaration “art is dead” by now feels extremely repetitive? Has it become an empty claim, since it would appear to have died so many times before? Was the claim even that daring and provocative in the past?
Julieta Aranda was born in Mexico City, and currently lives and works between Berlin and New York. Central to Aranda’s multidimensional practice are her involvement with circulation mechanisms and the idea of a “poetics of circulation”; the possibility of a politicized subjectivity through the perception and use of time, and the notion of power over the imaginary. Julieta Aranda’s work has been exhibited internationally in venues such as Witte de With (2013), Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Villa Croce, Genova (2013), ArtPostions, Miami Basel (2012), MACRO Roma (2012) Documenta 13 (2012), N.B.K. (2012), Gwangju Biennial (2012), Venice Biennial (2011), Stroom den Haag (2011), “Living as form,” Creative Time, NY (2011), Istanbul Biennial (2011), Portikus, Frankfurt (2011), New Museum (2010), Solomon Guggenheim Museum (2009), New Museum of Contemporary Art, NY (2010), Kunstverein Arnsberg (2010), MOCA Miami (2009), Witte de With (2010), Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (2007), 2nd Moscow Biennial (2007) MUSAC, Spain (2010 and 2006), and VII Havanna Biennial; amongst others. As a co-director of e-flux together with Anton Vidokle, Julieta Aranda has developed the projects Time/Bank, Pawnshop, and e-flux video rental, all of which started in the e-flux storefront in new York, and have traveled to many venues worldwide.
Please note: due to a last minute emergency, Julieta Aranda was filled in for as a panelist by Anton Vidokle. Vidokle's opening comments were written by Aranda, but any subsequent remarks are his.
Gregg Horowitz is Professor of Philosophy and Chair of Social Science and Cultural Studies at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY and Adjoint Associate Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. He writes on aesthetics and the philosophy of art, psychoanalysis, and political theory. His publications include the books Sustaining Loss: Art and Mournful Life (Stanford, 2001) and The Wake of Art: Philosophy, Criticism and the Ends of Taste (Routledge, 1998, with Arthur C. Danto and Tom Huhn) and, recently, articles on “Absolute Bodies: The Video Puppets of Tony Oursler” (Parallax, 2010), “The Homeopathic Image, or, Trauma, Intimacy and Poetry,” (Critical Horizons, 2010), and “A Late Adventure of the Feelings: Loss, Trauma and the Limits of Psychoanalysis” (in The Trauma Controversy: Philosophical and Interdisciplinary Dialogues, SUNY Press, 2009).
Paul Mattick, who teaches philosophy at Adelphi University, is the author of Art in Its Time and co-author, with Katy Siegel, of Artworks: Money. He has written criticism for Arts, Art in America, Artforum, The Nation, and The Brooklyn Rail, as well as catalogue essays for exhibitions at a number of museums and galleries.
Yates McKee is an organizer with Strike Debt and co-editor of the magazine Tidal: Occupy Theory, Occupy Strategy. His work as an art critic has appeared in venues including October, Grey Room, Texte Zur Kunst, Oxford Art Journal, The Nation, and Waging Nonviolence. He recently co-edited a volume for Zone Books entitled Sensible Politics: The Visual Cultures of Nongovernmental Activism.
Platypus Review 52 | December 2012–January 2013
On September 21, 2012, Chris Mansour interviewed Stephen Eric Bronner, a professor at Rutgers University and author of Rosa Luxemburg: A Revolutionary for Our Times (1980), Socialism Unbound (1990), Of Critical Theory and Its Theorists (1994), and Reclaiming the Enlightenment: Toward a Politics of Radical Engagement (2004), among many others. His most recent book is Modernism at the Barricades: Aesthetics, Politics, and Utopia. What follows is an edited transcript of the interview.
Chris Mansour: In Modernism at the Barricades, you mention that your first publication was on the relationship of art and politics, so that this book represents a return to your earliest intellectual preoccupations. What motivated you to write a book on modernist art reconsidering its history today?
Stephen Eric Bronner: “Art and Utopia: The Marcusean Perspective” appeared in Politics and Society in the Winter of 1973. It was probably the first article in English on Marcuse’s aesthetics. More specifically, it dealt with the interplay between culture and politics, highlighting the importance of the modernist avant-garde for critical theory. At the time, the Frankfurt School was still exotic and outside the academic mainstream. In large part because of Marcuse’s popularity that situation changed. Its most important thinkers have become part of the discourse, and subject to the usual esoteric textual pedantry and academic domestication. Though my views on critical theory have shifted over the last four decades, I am still inspired by it. The same is true of modernism. Learning about modernist painting, in fact, became a kind of hobby. The bohemian, cosmopolitan, and interdisciplinary character of modernism fits with my basic view of critical theory that integrates different forms of radicalism.
Whatever one may think about Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Marcuse, they were thoroughly modern. Culturally elitist though they might have been, they never sought a return to the past or the “good old days.” They embraced the new—new forms of aesthetics and cultural resistance—and that element of their legacy is worth preserving. The style of young radicals today is far too imitative of the 1960s. It’s time to move on. In their cultural outlook, radicals today should critically confront the 1960s in the same way that the 1960s confronted the cultural styles of the 1930s. Perhaps the young radicals of today can learn from the mistakes of the past. Modernism helped create the cultural preconditions in which political radicalism could thrive. But what Lukács termed its “romantic anti-capitalism,” its attack on the system without knowing how it operates, produced an uneasy relationship with all mass movements. Modernists understood politics primarily as cultural opposition to what they considered the (bourgeois) philistine, rather than understanding it as the economic conflict between classes or the political competition for institutional power. My new book explores the tensions between utopian developments in art, principally concerned with transforming what Benjamin termed the “poverty of the interior,” and the need to effectively challenge the existing imbalance of power and reactionary institutions.
CM: You have written much about the connection between modernism and modernity. If there was a period of time where the new was actually being yielded and people had to confront these new experiences, what was it that made this time propitious? Could you elaborate on this a bit more?
SB: Modernism, for me, is the culturally liberating response to the alienating and reifying aspects of modernity. There is much philosophical debate about how to define modernity but, ultimately, it is less a philosophical category than a complex of standardizing practices associated with the second industrial revolution and the rise of monopoly capital during the last quarter of the 19th century. This period witnessed the emergence of the labor movement committed to republican democracy and the rise of imperialism. This affected the formation of modernism in different ways. Modernism contested Victorianism and highlighted the experience of individual freedom rather than the liberal rule of law. It was more concerned with what Else Laske-Schüler termed “poor little humanity” than the proletariat. And it was far less interested in the rising social democratic movement than the existential impact of mass society and mass culture. Modernism also responded to imperialism by purposefully learning from non-Western forms of art. This is true almost across the board.
Enough major artists like Ezra Pound, the brilliant colorist Emil Nolde, and the founder of Futurism F. T. Marinetti were seduced by fascism. Ultimately, however, the exploration of individuality was the primary concern of modernists, along with the way in which people should treat one another. Oscar Wilde talked about “The Soul of Man under Socialism,” for instance, asking in effect: What are the new interpersonal values that accompany a genuinely radical transformation of society? That question has not lost its resonance amid the preoccupation with commercial life and the rise of what has been termed “non-conformist conformity.”
CM: You call upon my contemporaries to seek out or express the new, but this is much easier said than done. How does one even recognize the new anymore?
SB: By highlighting genuinely experimental attempts to deal with new developments and new problems in new ways. Modernism has something to offer here. Think of the famous Radical Light Exhibition: Paul Klee and August Macke went to Tunisia to paint in the stark sunlight of the region. They painted mostly in watercolors. When they came back to Munich and put on the exhibition it caused a sensation. What they had produced was neither African nor European, but something new. It integrated elements of different traditions and reconfigured them. So, the new is not something ex nihilo. It transforms traditions inherited from the past. This is true in politics and philosophy as well as in art, albeit each in their own fashion.
Paul Klee, Southern (Tunisian) Gardens, 1919; Watercolor, 9.5 x 7.5 in; Collection Heinz Berggruen, Paris
CM: Adorno—or perhaps a better example is Peter Bürger—said that since around 1930 culture has just been repeating the styles and discoveries made in the high modernist period. Why is it that our time fails to express or seek out the new?
SB: That view reflects critical theory at its worst. Radical art did not come to an end in 1930 any more than radical politics. The integrative dangers associated with the culture industry may have grown, but it’s ridiculous to make this kind of claim. The Frankfurt School never grasped the radical contributions of either the post-war era or the 1960s, whether in terms of literature, film, music, or style. None of them mention the great developments in film by Fellini, Godard, or other great directors. It is the same with the music of the time. There was a way in which the Frankfurt School almost purposefully insulated themselves from new experiments and developments. Adorno’s embarrassing essay on jazz is reflective not merely of a certain elitist dogmatism. It also evinces nostalgia for the new provided by modernism without reference to the new as it emerged in a very different context. Who can seriously doubt that writers like Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, and Pynchon contributed to a new critical understanding of our country—its past, present and even its future ambitions? You are right in suggesting that criteria are necessary to talk about the new—and here the “radical” philosophers of our time have been remiss in providing them. Postmodern preoccupations with subjectivity are holdovers from the past, and fashionable forms of cynical relativism obscure more than they illuminate. It’s as if the abdication of judgment has been elevated to a principle of judgment. Engaging in an immanent critique of this outlook might begin to provide criteria for illuminating the new, but that is up to a new generation of intellectuals.
CM: There is an essay simply titled “Critique” by Adorno where he is extremely skeptical of what is dubbed as “constructive criticism,” as if the act of critique must always serve a constructive purpose. Must critique always contain this positive function, or can purely negative critique be valuable in some other way, even if indirectly?
SB: Critique is different from simple criticism precisely insofar as it elicits a transformative and constructive purpose. The rejection of this stance is not unique to Adorno, although his view of the matter is probably the most sophisticated. The issue for him, of course, is the transformation of the totality. Either that is transformed or nothing is transformed. Like many modernists, Adorno felt that the proletariat is not up to the task. The transformative agent is lacking. Insofar as that is the case, so far as he is concerned, the primary purpose of critique is to affirm the fleeting experience of subjectivity in the face of a totality that is more and more defined by instrumental rationality and various integrative mechanisms. This may have been a legitimate position to take in the aftermath of Auschwitz and the Gulag. It’s now 50 years later. The problem today is not that subjectivity is being extinguished, but that it has become the over-riding preoccupation of radical thought. Radicals have to put something positive on the table rather than indulge in what Thomas Mann called a “power-protected inwardness.” Instead of obsessing about subjectivity and the cultivation of authenticity, we should be talking about the conditions in which people can exercise their freedom. Radical art has a role to play in that process.
CM: You note that it has been over 50 years since Adorno and Horkheimer published The Dialectic of Enlightenment, and that, while their take on the task of philosophy might have been right for their time, that time has passed. Things are no longer the same. What changed? Surely it is not simply a matter of time passing.
SB: The world has actually become a world, not simply a conglomeration of Western states. Consider the Civil Rights movement, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the popular recognition of the Orient. Pluralism, multiculturalism, and a kind of hybridity have flourished. Racism, sexism, and homophobia are on the defensive—at least in the Western democracies. New groups have entered the public realm. You can see things today that would have been almost unimaginable in the 1950s: two men walking together holding hands, gay marriage, and women enjoying sports and participating in public life. Interracial dating is evident in a way that it certainly was not when I was in high school and college. These are real points of progress. Even as cultural possibilities have expanded, however, the greatest upward shift of wealth in American history has taken place along with the effective disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of people of color through a privatized prison system and constraints on voting. Dialectic of Enlightenment has nothing to say about any of this, nor does it have anything to say about the dialectical interplay between progress and regress.
CM: How do you understand this tension between progress and regress?
SB: My former teacher, Ernst Bloch, argued that history does not move in linear fashion, and that progress in one realm of society can occur while regression takes place in another. Extraordinary scientific breakthroughs are complementing the rise of religious fundamentalism. Cultural liberation is taking place while economic inequality is increasing. It is not as if some uniform and prefabricated teleological process is leading humanity to a happy end. Bloch had little use for the idea that the contradictions of one historical period are resolved before another historical period is introduced. Instead he noted the existence of “non-synchronous contradictions” that are carried over from one period to another while changing their form and function, thereby situating regression within progress. Clearly, for example, racism and sexism and religious prejudices are pre-capitalist in character, but they play an important role in capitalist society. New forms of solidarity are generated both to protect the inheritance of the past as well as and overcome it.
The German Marxist and Hegelian philosopher Ernst Bloch (1885-1977), also an early influential member in the Frankfurt School. Bloch wrote widely on the concept of Utopia, compiled in such books as The Spirit of Utopia (1918) and The Principle of Hope (1954).
CM: Tell me more about your education under Ernst Bloch. Who were your other teachers, and how did they influence your intellectual development? How do you reflect back on that period today?
SB: My first mentor was Henry Pachter who taught at City College in New York where I did my bachelor’s. A communist in the 1920s, then a radical socialist, he fought in Spain with the POUM, served in the anti-fascist resistance, as well as in the Office of Strategic Services. He wrote much about socialist history, the Weimar Republic, and foreign policy. He also taught courses in critical theory. He was an extraordinarily erudite political realist who enjoyed debating politics and provoking 1960s radicals like me. After CCNY, I attended the University of California, Berkeley where I received my doctorate in 1975. In 1973, I was awarded a Fulbright to study in Tübingen. I was very excited because I knew this would allow me to attend lectures by the literary historian Hans Mayer and, above all, Ernst Bloch, the author of The Spirit of Utopia and The Principle of Hope. Bloch was a major figure of European radical thought. Himself a communist until his departure from East Germany just before the construction of the Berlin Wall, Bloch was nonetheless a staunch defender of the modernist avant-garde with its utopian outlook. He saw kernels of atheism in Christianity and inspired liberation theology, integrated the Platonic-Aristotelian tradition with Arabic thought, and articulated a cosmological materialism that anticipated the ecological appreciation of nature. Bloch’s cosmopolitan knowledge blended nicely with his over-riding commitment to the utopian novum.
Bloch was an extraordinary philosopher. When he talked about politics, however, it was a disaster. He had a critical perspective on all fixed and finished philosophical systems, and yet, as he put it, he "swallowed" Stalin and the propaganda of Stalinism. Not unlike many other European intellectuals of his generation, he believed that Stalin's society was pointing towards the communist future. If it was not utopian now, it was still heading in a utopian direction. Bloch’s idea of communism was ultimately metaphysical. It was thus never really a question of turning theory into practice. The closest he ever came to discussing institutional politics involved a romantic view of the workers’ council. Bloch basically approached politics from the cultural-aesthetic standpoint of an “anticipatory consciousness” that projects “the best life” even while burdened with various forms of repression that make its full realization impossible.
The 1960s and 1970s were the most intellectually exciting years of my life. It’s still the case that, paraphrasing Goethe, "two souls dwell in my breast." My thinking is inspired by both political realism and critical utopian idealism. But I recognize the need to distinguish between them and what each provides for the radical, intellectual project.
CM: Are these two approaches towards politics mutually exclusive?
SB: I don’t think so. Every radical movement worthy of its name has had a utopian component. This was noted long ago by the sociologist Karl Mannheim in his classic Ideology and Utopia. The danger lies in failing to recognize the tension between utopia and reality, the power of the imagination and the demands of power. Radical politics is always infused with the religious or teleological longing for utopia. Socialism itself is a regulative ideal that provides an ethical way of keeping our compromises in check. No system ever fulfills the always untapped possibilities of freedom—and no movement does either. It is a mistake to think that the utopian ideals of a movement can be simply and operationally translated into reality. There is an inherent tension between the ideals associated with humanity that great works of art project and the political works in which humanity is engaged.
CM: So not even socialism could realize an authentic form of freedom?
SB: No. Henry Pachter once wrote that, “one cannot have socialism; one is a socialist.” I always believed that. Freedom always outstrips the real. There will always be new possibilities for expanding the enjoyment of life as well as still unexplored and unrecognized forms of oppression that new movements will need to confront. It is a question of remaining open to the prospect of previously unacknowledged forms of repression, and the liberating responses to them. Modernism anticipated later concerns with generational conflict, sexual liberation, abortion, incest, spousal abuse, date rape, and a host of other such issues. But this anticipatory consciousness ultimately required (among others) a women’s movement to turn what were considered private concerns into public matters that men would have to acknowledge and deal with. No one would have expected that these were issues of such importance in 1930, when you actually had socialist movements around. It was, again, a matter of being open to the always unfinished character of freedom.
No less than modernism, critical theory was fundamentally concerned with the authoritarian personality. It exists on both the left and the right. Erich Fromm noted in his study of German workers during the 1920s that most were imbued with a patriarchal and traditionally conservative character structure. Such studies need to be taken seriously. They confirm Bloch’s position insofar as they militate against the idea that solving the problem of class conflict will necessarily solve the problems of sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. The liberal rule of law and its attendant notions of tolerance are irreplaceable when it comes to dealing with disenfranchised subaltern groups in a meaningful way. Changing society for the better does not simply involve a break with the past: there are compromises with history that need to be made.
CM: I want to talk more about compromises, about making compromises for the sake of making gradual progress. I am wondering how much that kind of ideology has a stranglehold on today’s Left. Many leftists today support the Democrats or try to focus on certain issue campaigns without any greater concern to transform the social totality. They simply devote themselves to reformist goals without revolutionary ends. How do reformist movements figure in and help provoke large changes in the social totality today?
SB: Every election in a capitalist democracy involves a choice between the lesser of two evils. There is much talk about the evils of capitalism but less about how it generates a structural imbalance of power that disadvantages working people. In a capitalist democracy, the interests of capital are served prior to meeting all other interests. That is because the employment of workers depends upon the private investment decisions of capitalists. It is just that simple. Those who consider it possible to engage meaningfully in electoral politics without making compromises with capital are utopian in the worst sense. At the same time, just because wealth is becoming centralized in fewer and fewer hands, capital is not homogenous and its various factions require allies in order to push their agendas in a democratic society. This creates the possibility for political interventions by subaltern groups and the working class. Social movements thus have a role to play. The apocryphal story of Roosevelt saying to radical communists, socialists, and trade unionists, “make me do it” (with respect to the New Deal) is a case in point. Social movements can pressure the establishment to move in more or less radical directions. We have all seen that recently with the Tea Party. Its impact on the Republican Party has been remarkable. The situation is different with Occupy Wall Street (OWS). Its core activists talked about abolishing politics as we know it through a new “horizontalism” predicated on participatory democracy. But the real contributions of OWS involved pushing the Tea Party off the front pages, introducing a new discourse of economic equality, and bringing class struggle into the streets. OWS pushed President Obama to the left with regard to his job bills and his willingness to challenge more directly the Republican obstructionists and the Tea Party. OWS did not build revolutionary consciousness but it did reinvigorate the Democratic Party. These are important contributions. Ironically (or dialectically), however, these realistic results could not have been achieved without the original utopian impulse.
An image of Occupy Amsterdam located at the central square in front of the stock exchange, 2011. In the background hangs a sign that declares "Occupy Utopia!"
CM: Many Left commentators have claimed that Occupy Wall Street brought the whole picture into view. The movement saw that the problems of capital are systemic, and it looked at a broader framework instead of just focusing on single issues. On the other hand, when reflecting on Occupy a year after its “occupations” disbanded, it is clear that the movement’s understanding of how to get from here to there, their strategic orientation, was inadequate. Does this express the tension between their utopianism and their realism you spoke of before? This might speak to why their “hibernation” ended up being a burial.
SB: Yes. In a way I agree with you, though I do not think any serious form of radical theory emerged. But we have to be clear about something: movements do not have the same function that parties do. Movements are there to mobilize the immobilized, inspire them, and maybe even raise hopes that cannot even be met. That is what movements do. Parties translate these hopes and ideals imperfectly into some kind of legislation. In order to do that, again, compromises are required. A basic strategic mistake was for organizers of OWS to assume forms of discipline that simply did not exist. Their inability to recognize that OWS was never a revolutionary mass movement contributed to its inability to sustain and organize itself. Their plan for massive civil disobedience and putting OWS (which began in the fall of 2011) into hibernation for the winter, so to speak, and reconstituting it again in the summer, was questionable from the beginning.
CM: In this case, what about the relation between reform and revolution?
SB: One can make the argument that what is required today is revolution: I think revolution is still necessary in certain nations and under certain conditions. But it is impossible to justify a revolutionary politics without being clear about whether mass support for such an enterprise actually exists or is on the agenda. Unless that support is imaginable in a meaningful way the ideal of revolution becomes a substitute for the practice of reform, and radicals thereby abdicate their responsibility with regard to the poor, the exploited, and the disenfranchised. The ultra-left simply asks people to wait for the revolution. But they cannot wait. New goals can be raised, new constituencies can be mobilized, and new utopian ideals can be articulated—but not at the expense of supporting what might help working people today—or, if you like, the lesser of the two evils.
CM: It might not be that certain political figures are asking masses to wait necessarily. It could be convincingly argued—and many Marxists have—that we are at a moment in history where it is totally confusing who that mass base, or agent, might be.
SB: But that lack of clarity with regard to agency clouds the substance of what the revolution should achieve. At the turn of the 20th century every socialist and Marxist knew what a revolution implied: a growing proletariat would substitute republican democracy for the monarchical regimes in which it operated; a new accumulation process would privilege the interests of workers through various social programs and nationalization of the major industries; and, finally, an enlightenment ideology would highlight how liberal norms and scientific experimentation would liberate them from religion and pre-modern superstitions. Without some clarity regarding the revolutionary agent, however, the idea of revolution becomes a mish-mash of apocalyptic hopes. Here is the connection with modernism, which so often confused cultural rebellion with political revolution. If you are right on the question of agency then, I think, radicals should be a bit more modest in their political ambitions and highlight the need for a new cultural discourse that might clarify the preconditions for future forms of radical politics. The inability to draw distinctions is debilitating for the left when it comes to both art and politics. It undermines the possibility of distinguishing between what is possible and what is not. Contradictions and distinctions continue to exist: they project both danger and opportunity. That is why radicals need to emerge from what Hegel termed “the night in which all cows are black.” |P
. See Theodor Adorno, “Critique,” in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005):
One continually finds the word critique, if it is tolerated at all, accompanied by the word constructive. The insinuation is that only someone can practice critique who can propose something better than what is criticized...By making the positive a condition for it, critique is tamed from the very beginning and loses vehemence. (287)
Platypus Review 46 | May 2012
On 31 March 2012, the Platypus Affiliated Society invited Mary Jane Jacob (School of the Art Institute of Chicago), Robert Pippin (University of Chicago), and Walter Benn Michaels (University of Illinois at Chicago) to speak on the theme of “Changes in Art and Society: A View from the Present” at the 2012 Platypus International Convention held at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The complete audio and video recordings of the event are available online by clicking the above links. The original description of the event reads as follows:
Hegel famously remarked that the task of philosophy was to “comprehend its own time in thought.” In a sense, we can extend this as the raison d'être for artistic production, albeit in a modified way: Art's task is to “comprehend its own time in form.” Yet only with the revolutionary rise of modernity can this dictum make sense. Beginning in the 18th century, art sought to register and materialize the way in which social consciousness changed alongside the developing material conditions of social life. Thus, in times of great social transformation, we also bear witness to major shifts in artistic production: The French Revolution and David, The Revolutions of 1848 and Courbet, and the Russian Revolution and Suprematism and Constructivism are three major examples. This panel focuses on the relationship between social and aesthetic transformation.
The panelists were asked several questions in order to flesh out the uneven and at times obscure relationship that art has with a society that is constantly in flux. Full video of the event can be found online at <http://vimeo.com/41013265>. What follows is an edited transcript of the event.
Mary Jane Jacob: Terms like the avant-garde and the underpinnings of modernism are still at the heart of the motivations and activity of many artists—not necessarily in terms of style, but in terms of contributing to changing society. I would like to point to a few concepts at play: a huge part of contemporary art-making is concerned with the dematerialized, not art that is a static object traded on the marketplace; second, it often involves collaboration, which raises questions of authorship on the part of the artist, questions of voice on the part of collaborators, and questions of participation in general; and thirdly, there is a new look to the question of effectiveness in this context—not just the affect of art—and so we should ask, effectiveness to what end?
Here are a few examples. In the 1990s, Christopher Sperandio and Simon Grennan worked with the Chicago Confectioner’s Union at a Nestlé plant to design their own candy bar, including a memorable advertising campaign. The candy bar was sold in stores. Just last night, I was driving south on Halsted; the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) has changed so dramatically since 1993, when Daniel J. Martinez did a major public intervention there. For all of the 20th century the Maxwell Street Market was a center of a kind of open commerce; then UIC and the city joined forces to make it a campus village. So Martinez’s peoples’ plaza—he knew these redevelopment plans would come in 15–20 years—harkened back to labor events staged in that area, like the McCormick Reaper Strike or the Haymarket riot, along with world events throughout history. The Chicago collaborative HAHA worked on AIDS awareness in their project Flood, teaching kids at once about hydroponics and safe sex, but also coming to a deeper understanding of the epidemic, with each of some 50 members working during the course of the project within the larger AIDS healthcare network. In West Town, Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle’s worked with youth to deconstruct their own images in the media and take control of creating their own images in neighborhood-based forms of presentation, culminating in a huge, 75-monitor video installation along an entire residential block. While the artwork was temporary, it permanently exists in the form of the organization Street Level Youth Media, now about to celebrate its twentieth year.
From 1992 to 1995 the art group Haha cultivated a hydroponic garden, with a focus on nutritional vegetables and therapeutic herbs, in a Chicago storefront.
Though drawn from Chicago, these examples participate in a worldwide movement of artists whose practice consists in taking action into their own hands—sometimes as gestures, sometimes as provocations—in an Alinskian drive to create permanent change. In Puerto Rico, for instance, when the government was about to do away with what they considered a squatters’ village in the mountains, Chemi Rosado painted everyone’s house green so that the community would blend in with the mountain. Kamin Lertchaiprasert and Rirkrit Tiravanija, an alum of SAIC, founded the Land Project in Chiang Mai, Thailand, as a kind of experimental studio for artists, designers, but also for developing bio-gas and other kinds of alternative energy engineering, while, at the same time, farming a rice field with a nearby community that has been devastated by AIDS. Or consider Artway of Thinking, a collective that will be with SAIC this summer, whose projects are often funded by the EU. One project looked at seafarers’ plight around the world and particularly in their homeland of Mestre, Venice. In response to this multi-layered, multi-year art project, a number of actions took place that led to change, among them the creation of two agencies dedicated to services for seafarers and new, more equitable policies regarding access when they are at port. Another one of their projects involved working with 13 provincial governments in Italy to change the law so that people can work legally in Italy while seeking asylum.
We are initiating a research project at SAIC on artists’ social practices in Chicago. My hope is that in the next few years we will explore the relationship between art and social change as it has been practiced in this city and intersects with the thinking and actions here since 1900.
Robert Pippin: The people I look to for help understanding the fate of art in bourgeois society are Kant, Schiller, Schelling, Hegel, the Schlegel brothers, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Adorno, Marcuse, and Heidegger.
The historical events—the simple facts—that define the social reality of the present are not much in dispute. Most count the September 15, 2008 collapse of the massive investment bank, Lehman Brothers—what is sometimes, quite revealingly, referred to as “letting Lehman fail”—as the signal event. It was followed by the nationalization of Fanny May and Freddie Mac, in the hastily conceived, 700 million dollar bailout. With that came the sudden and deep freezing of the international credit markets, the near total ruin of the economy of Iceland, the bankruptcy of Latvia, the destruction, in a little over a year, of what is estimated to be 50 trillion dollars in assets. All of this is well known, but still not well understood. In fact we seem to be drifting rapidly, as if inexorably, back into the same form of finance capitalism that produced the crisis in the first place.
Because these events have not produced even a roughly agreed-upon explanation, their significance remains unclear. The idea that global capitalism may have finally reached its long predicted death spiral is plausible: It appears unable to grow at rates that will provide minimal stability (usually estimated at around 3 percent) and unable to find any novel way to sustain itself without such growth, and all of this for various reasons having to do with unmanageable periodic liquidity crises and the inability of national governments, especially the U.S., to debt-finance its way out of such a crisis, hemmed in by domestic conservatives, foreign creditors, and the massive size of the current deficit—the U.S. has been borrowing at the rate of about 2 billion dollars a day for many years now. That ever more obviously dire consequences will result from our reliance on polluting technology to promote the rapid but deadly modernization that would insure markets for the excess liquidity—or that there may not even be sufficient space on the globe for such expansion—is, I think, a depressingly persuasive argument. And it is persuasively made, by David Harvey in The Enigma of Capital, for instance, whose account I am relying on.
But our question today concerns changes in art and society, and, presumably, the implications for the production and appreciation of art works in the current situation, understood as a now perhaps unending crisis in financial markets, with its attendant high unemployment, right-wing populism, and hyper-dogmatic religious enthusiasms that, in the U.S. at least, seem to be the first manifestation of dangerous, perhaps permanent political instability. Asking about art in this context seems necessary, yet almost impossible to think about.
The category “art” still takes in everything from folk art to commercialized pop art (music, television), to extremely expensive gallery art for an ever-smaller and richer elite, to highly academicized art music (each piece of which is performed, I am told, an average of once), to ambitious and not-so-ambitious graphic novels, to self-consciously avant-garde installation art, and so on. I don’t know how to begin to get a handle on the issue except by ascending to a high altitude and talking about the “present” in much broader terms than those sketched above. Specifically, by talking about the present in terms of the situation of bourgeois society, after the basic institutions necessary for that society began to come into view in the mid-19th century and afterwards, many aspects of which were the subjects of realist and modernist art. I mean by this the establishment of a domain of privacy created mostly by the bourgeois nuclear family; the establishment of the political public sphere; the reconstruction of marriage around the romantic love of partners, eventually equal partners who chose their own mates; what was so famously, and what still should be called, the fetishization of commodities; the establishment of mass consumer societies based in nation-states; and the increasing reliance on technology to produce the expansion and growth necessary to sustain competitive market societies.
I will assume that many of these aspects are well known and uncontroversial. But at that altitude, we can also say something equally abstract and, at such a level, a bit banal, about art. If we accept that in earlier forms of Western societies, works of great artistic genius were possible—a highly contested claim—then it has become a commonplace to say that the form of life coming into view in Paris and London in the mid-19th century made the production and appreciation of art of that quality, or at least the consensual recognition of such art, much more difficult. Perhaps there might be such art, but the importance of there being such art, its significance, would have changed radically and would have been greatly reduced. Something like this might have been Hegel’s position, which was the first to claim that in modern bourgeois societies, the greatness of art had become a thing of the past. For others, the social institution of art was eventually unable, after the failure of the heroic resistance of high modernism, to resist its commercialization, commodification, and eventual trivialization in the likes of Damien Hirst or Dan Flavin.
Damien Hirst, Pharmacy, glass, faced particle board, painted medium density fiberboard, beech and ramin woods, dowels, aluminum, pharmaceutical packaging; dimensions variable, 1992 (Tate Modern).
I don’t mean to refer to anything much about the implications of the commodity form of value, as such, but to another, deeper problem. The production of art works—let us say, easel paintings—inevitably assumes the possibility of some shareable and non-discursive but primarily sensible, affective, form of intelligibility. If there isn’t such a distinct form, there isn’t art. Moreover, under the historical assumptions about meaning influentially insisted on by Hegel, the conventions necessary for such assumptions to be reasonable change over time. At some basic level, we need to understand that change before we can understand the possibilities of its specific modalities, like aesthetic modalities of shareable meaning.
These same considerations are in play in other bodily incorporations of meaning, for instance in the bodily movements we count as actions. There is some kind of crisis if actions taken by agents to be of certain types are not taken to be such actions by many others. Rousseau began an account of those conditions and their implications: Modern societies had created novel and profoundly deep forms of dependencies, in a novel and profoundly deep way—most famously, but not exclusively, the dependencies that result from ever more divided, specialized, and thus alienated labor. To make Rousseau’s long story short, this situation created a great social pressure for ignoring, for suppressing via conformism, for rendering invisible by various means the vast social inequalities that such unequal positions of dependence and relative independence would inevitably produce. This is the situation that would later be intelligibly called “dialectical.” The social relations and fundamental inequalities of modern capitalism greatly weakens the possibility of common conventions that could be shared in meaningfully fulfilling ways; rather, these sorts of tensions tended to be anaesthetized by a conformity-inducing redirection of human desire to what everyone else desired.
From Hegel to Adorno, the realm of the aesthetic has been called the realm of the negative—that which is not expressible in discursive articulation and so possibly resistant to those processes of conformism. For Hegel, “negative” did not mean unintelligible, but involved bearing truth in its own way, preserving some distinct mode of genuinely shareable meaning, or at least an aspiration for genuinely shareable meaning. The first expression of the crisis of aesthetic modernism was such negativity: the diminishing credibility of the traditional aesthetic forms that had previously made possible such sensible mutual recognition. The painterly conventions of illusionism, perspective, sculptural modeling to evoke solidity, or the traditions of genre, the nude, the ideal—these are all refused, all at once, in Manet’s Olympia, for example. Aesthetic intelligibility would from now on be immensely more difficult because continued reliance upon such conventions came to evoke conformism, a kind of enforced traditionalism, in the face of the looming possibility that prior assumptions about shareability of meaning were becoming irrelevant.
The events of 2008 have not changed any of this, and have added, as an even more effective conformity-inducing phenomenon, a shared mood—namely, deep anxiety—and the kind of neurotic, racist hysteria we see in the Tea Party movement. What we should expect is, at the very least, something very simple: that the occurrence of great art—art that means in a way that escapes the kind of social conventions necessary for a mass consumer society to sustain the conditions of its own survival, but still manages to embody a kind of shareable meaning not anticipated and normalized by such conventions—will be extremely rare. Perhaps so extremely rare as to be acknowledgeable and appreciated only many years after its appearance.
Dan Flavin, “monument” 1 for V. Tatlin, fluorescent lights and metal fixtures, 8’ x 23 1/8” x 4 1/2” (243.8 x 58.7 x 10.8 cm), 1964 (Museum of Modern Art).
Walter Benn Michaels: Maggie Nelson’s collection of poems, Jane: A Murder, centers on the murder of Nelson’s aunt Jane in 1969, four years before Nelson herself was born. At the time, and for a long while after, it was thought that Jane’s death was one of what were thought to be the “Michigan murders”: seven young women killed in Washtenaw county, Michigan, over a period of two years. In 1970 a man was arrested and convicted for what turned out to be the last of the murders. The assumption was that he had probably killed Jane. And Jane itself, the book, is written on that theory. As the book was going to the press, however, Nelson learned that a different man had been arrested for Jane’s murder. Her next book, The Red Parts, is about the trial and conviction of that man. Edgar Allen Poe makes an appearance in The Red Parts. Watching a TV show about the murder of a “beautiful Peace Corps volunteer in Tonga,” Nelson was taken aback to hear someone on the show explain his obsession with this crime by referring to Poe, who “once declared the death of a beautiful woman to be the most poetic topic in the world.” But while Poe was only incidental for The Red Parts, he is central to Jane.
One way that Nelson imagines this centrality is as a critique of Poe’s sexual poetic, which she suggests in an interview is an example of what she calls the ethically unsound practice of treating beautiful women as if their lives were “more grievable,” because somehow more valuable, than others. Hence it matters to her that Jane, unlike the Peace Corps volunteer, was not particularly beautiful. Indeed, she puts Jane’s picture on the cover of the book at least partially to prove it. But the picture plays another role as well, one that matches the other interest Nelson has in Poe. As she tells the interviewer, Poe made this comment in his Philosophy of Composition while describing, with what seems to be at least some glibness, how to make the perfect poem. The ambition to make the perfect poem—which is, she says, also a part of her book Jane—is not easily dismissed. The idea that a woman ought to be beautiful is one thing, the idea that a work of art ought to be perfect is another, and the idea that the beauty of a work of art is its perfection is something else. Nelson herself insists on this difference. A poem near the end of Jane begins, “Does it matter if I tell you now that Jane was not beautiful?” It goes on to describe Jane, her skin, white and chalky, her eyes set close together. It ends with a description of Nelson’s favorite photo of Jane, her face half bleached out, and the point is no longer that Jane is not beautiful, but that the picture is beautiful. The poem’s last words are, “the whole picture is beautiful.” The beauty of the photo is made out of someone who is not beautiful. More precisely, the kind of beauty the photo attains has nothing to do with the kind of beauty that the person in the photo might or might not have. This is emphasized by the insistence that it is the “whole picture” that is beautiful; the invocation of the whole calls attention in particular to the form of the work of art, to its ambition to be perfect, in a way that no person can ever be. We might say that just as the photograph of Jane must be made beautiful even though its subject is not, the poem Jane must be made into a whole even though the occasion of its production, Jane’s death, is loss.
There is a difference between the question of whether the person needs to be beautiful and the question of whether the poem ought to be perfect. This difference might plausibly be understood as the difference between a set of ethical or even political concerns, and a set of aesthetic ones. For example, the question of whether some lives are or should be more grievable than others might be understood as political in a way that the question of the possible beauty or perfection of the work of art is not. But this opposition, emptying the aesthetic of the political, is certainly not one that Nelson would herself accept, and in fact we might better understand the politics of the grievable as opposed, not to a set of aesthetic concerns, but to another politics, for which the question of grievability would not arise, or at least would not be primary. Similarly, we might understand the aesthetic of perfection as opposed, not to the political as such, but to another aesthetic, distinguished by its repudiation of the commitments that accompany the entire intellectual apparatus of perfection.
In photography, the most brilliant and influential exponent of the aesthetic of the grievable would be Roland Barthes, for whom the most important thing about the photograph, the punctum, was the element that shoots out of it like an arrow and pierces the beholder. That is why the most important photograph in Barthes’ wonderful book about photography, Camera Lucida, is the one we do not see, as it is not in the book: the picture of Barthes’ mother. The reason we do not see it is that it would not pierce us; she is his mother, not ours. For us, he says, “It would be nothing but an indifferent picture.” When Nelson reproduces the photo of Jane, she is going against both Barthes’ practice—Jane was her aunt, not ours, but she includes the photograph—as well as his theory. It is the picture defined in terms of its internal relations, face and torso against the sky, and thus turned into a whole, that Nelson finds beautiful. It is, in other words, the picture disconnected from the interest its beholders might have in a beautiful Jane, or even a Jane they might be drawn by the poem to grieve for. For Barthes, our indifference to his mother makes her picture not worth reproducing, but our indifference to Maggie Nelson’s aunt is the desired response. It is precisely the imagination of the beholder’s indifference to the person Jane that marks the ambition to achieve perfection in the poem Jane. If the aesthetic of the whole is thus the aesthetic of indifference, the politics it evokes is also, I want to suggest, a politics of indifference: namely, indifference to worries about whether beautiful women should be more grievable than others, or whether anyone should be more grievable than anyone else.
The question of Jane’s beauty and the critique of the idea that it should matter belong, as Nelson herself suggests, to a feminist politics, and more generally to what she calls the cultural moment of the triple liberation of the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, and the Gay and Lesbian Rights Movement. These represent liberations from the idea that the lives of white people, straight people, men, are more grievable than others’. The refusal of these hierarchies, the refusal of the hierarchy of grievability, is in Nancy Fraser’s useful shorthand “the politics of recognition,” a politics that is given further specificity by the distinction Fraser makes between recognition and redistribution. This distinction is not itself an opposition, of course; there is no logical contradiction between recognition and redistribution, no reason why a politics seeking to eliminate or minimize class difference could not collaborate with a politics seeking to respect racial and sexual difference. But in practice, beginning in the 1970s, there has been no such collaboration. On the contrary, in the years during which the triple liberations had become central, not only to progressive politics, but also in varying degrees to American society itself, economic inequality of the kind that would be addressed by redistribution, rather than recognition, has radically increased. The increase in inequality, the increased immiseration of the American working and non-working classes, Black, White, Chicano, and Asian, is a phenomenon that does not date to 2008, but on the contrary dates to somewhere between 1969 and 1974 or 1975.
One way to understand the differing fates of recognition, its increasing centrality in redistribution, its increasing marginality, might be just a question of emphasis. In its commitment to social justice, the Left has, for various reasons, focused on issues of identity but not on issues of class for the past generation, at least. Part of the utility of the concept of neoliberalism, if we accept its periodization as primarily a phenomenon of the mid-1970s, is that it helps us see what is misleading about that way of putting the point. It helps us to see instead that the commitment to anti-discrimination at the heart of liberal politics is also at the heart of neoliberal economics, and has been ever since Gary Becker argued that an employer’s racism could only add to his labor costs since, for example, the refusal to hire black labor increased the cost of white labor. Following this line, virtually all neoclassical economists understand racism, sexism, and heterosexism as obstacles to success in competitive markets. This argument about efficiency has been doubled by an ethical argument against preferring one prospective employee over another on the basis of any characteristic not relevant to doing the job. That is, economic commitment to the primacy of markets has been accompanied by an economic and ethical commitment to equality of access to those markets. Thus, far from opposing neoliberalism, the commitment to anti-discrimination is foundational for it. This is not to say that anti-discrimination is always or sufficiently defended in all cases, but only that sexism and racism, and increasingly all inequalities of access to markets, like homophobia, are understood abstractly to be both unproductive and wrong. Inequalities actually produced by those markets, unlike inequalities of access to them, are not understood by neoliberal economics to be wrong. By this I mean just that the increasing economic inequalities of neoliberal societies are a problem for neoliberalism only insofar as they are raced or gendered. Those critics whose way of protesting economic inequality consists precisely in focusing on disparities between men and women or Black and White—think of every complaint about the disproportionate poverty of minorities, every complaint about the glass ceiling—are defending the ideals of neoliberalism, not criticizing them. They are protesting the ways in which the raced and gendered subject has been classed; they are not protesting class itself. Another way to put this is just to say that racism and sexism are liberalism today functioning badly; when it is working well, you get economic inequality, which has nothing to do with our feelings of whose lives are more or less grievable.
Just as an alternative to the aesthetics of the grievable is an aesthetics of indifference, the alternative to a politics of the grievable is a politics of indifference. That is, inasmuch as the goal was to minimize inequality, what a class politics requires is redistribution of wealth without regard to the race and gender of the beneficiaries, without regard to whether we see them as inferior, without regard to our regard itself. That is why today it is only as form that art does class. Produced by capitalism, rather than racism or sexism, poverty is independent of how we feel about or see the poor, just as the formal unity in the photograph Jane is independent of how we feel about the person Jane. In fact, that independence is the very meaning of the photograph’s unity, of its being a whole. It is in this context that the ambition to produce a perfect work of art has taken on a political meaning and that it has the particular political meaning it has. For the perfect work is one that, asserting the difference between it and the world, asserts its autonomy, an autonomy that in our period may be understood as above all autonomy from—here thematized as indifference to—its reader or beholder. It is the production of the work of art’s difference from the world that counts as the work it does in the world.
Professor Pippin, I wonder where a figure like Hölderlin fits in your narrative and, with him, the Romantic notion of the possibility of the transcendent? It seems to me that the crisis of art in modern bourgeois society is also tied to the crisis of religion. Secondly, do the panelists see a parallel between the high modernist aesthetic and what one might call a high modernist politics, which aimed at the abolition of capitalism? In what ways does this differ from a postmodernist aesthetic?
RP: Hölderlin is usually taken to represent a moment of rejection of the emergent forms of civil society that were visible in the early 19th century. He is seen in terms of a nostalgic retreat driven by a deep sense of the fragmentation, disunity, alienation, and anomie of modern life. That is the traditional and perhaps typical reading. A different reading would hinge on a very difficult issue: the politics and the cultural valence of the aesthetic ideal of the beautiful. I say this because Hölderlin certainly represents the last fluorescence of an approach that attributed real philosophical depth to the Beautiful. That approach would begin to evaporate after the 1820s–1830s, in the last gasp of the German Romantic Movement. Central to that approach was the conviction that the possibility of the presentation and experience of the beautiful intimates an actual harmony between the fundamental disunifications of modern society, between sensibility and intellect, reason, understanding, and so forth. One way of answering your question is just to say that something like the historical fate of Hölderlin, tied as it was to aspiration of the beautiful, had something to do with the fate of the beautiful, which in the modernist movement ceased to have the same credibility as an aesthetic ideal as it did for the Romantics.
If what you say is true and one presupposition, acknowledged or not, of high modernism is complete non-complicity with the commodification essential to capitalism, then you have to ask what the position of refusal is supposed to entail. If you believe that there is at bottom no reformable moment internal to late capitalism, what do you do, as an intellectual, if there is no longer the Party? That is, after all, the situation that begins to emerge after the failure of the German Revolution in 1918, and intensifies in subsequent moments—the dates 1939, 1956, 1968, 1989, and others stand out. If you’re an intellectual who believes that there is no internally reformable trajectory visible in modern capitalism, what does the rejectionist stand that you attribute to high modernism actually entail, politically? That is a question for which no one has a good answer, really.
MJ: Can I just ask, are there other artists here in the room? It is unfortunate in panels like this that there is often not a full sense of what contemporary artists are doing, what work they are making. What are their motivations, ethical stances, and commitment to change? Instead, some here are working from a historical position. At the same time, we need to have a pre-modern, a pre-museum, a pre-market sense of what we mean when we say the word “art,” and how some essential reasons for making art still function for artists in society today. As with the examples I pointed to earlier, the actual practice of many artists today seeks join art with life, even to dissolve any such barrier. This has been such an important theme in modernism and essentially in all art.
I want to read something from Foucault that articulates my disappointment in the inability to locate our discussions in what artists today are actually doing. Foucault says, appropriately, “What strikes me is the fact that in our society art has become something that is related only to objects and not to individuals or to life. That art is something that is specialized or done by experts who are artists, but couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art? Why should a lamp or the house be an art object, but not our life?”
But my co-panelists’ presentations still address art as objects, when what Foucault points to is what many artists are dealing with now, which often doesn’t involve art objects at all—at least in the traditional sense—much less worrying about how individual art objects will perform in the market.
WBM: Foucault has been very influential, but actually is one of the early exponents and defenders of neoliberalism. Post-modernism is and has been the more or less official culture of neoliberalism. No doubt, post-modernism is in some sense an avant-garde, but the idea that it has been a politically useful avant-garde is completely mistaken, in my opinion.
I think it is important to go back to the question that Robert was raising, a question I don’t have an answer to, but which is highly significant: He said art, great art, at this moment is going to be rare, and that sounds right. On the other hand I’m very much struck by the fact that there has been a kind of renewal in the last decade, and I think it’s probably above all in photography.
MJ: To clarify, there is the work of art that you’re referring to, which is done by the artist, and then there is also the work of the artist. Not all artists make works of art, per se. Being such a capitalist society, we unfortunately have fewer outlets for artists to be doing that kind of work, because such work doesn’t necessarily involve the creation of a discrete “product.” Moreover, a great deal of art today does not seem interested in participating in the discourse around the question, “What is great art?”
If art offers a way of understanding the possibility for freedom in modern life, characterized by free labor and free love, and if the difficulty of discerning great art in the present speaks to conditions of conformity that affect us all, how do you see the art and artists you have referenced as offering us a real hope of an emancipated future? To what extent do you feel confident in their present transcendent capacity to shed light on the possibilities of our moment?
MJ: Back to the notion of context, an aesthetic object might give us a sense of freedom, but what happens on our way to even having an experience with that art object? How are we free to even have experience and what do we understand experience to be? When we pay 18 dollars to get into the Art Institute, we enter it knowing that accessing these objects is worth a certain amount. How does this affect our experience of the object? I am interested in artists like Seamus McGuinness who spent five years working with a psychiatrist in Ireland developing the Visual Arts Autopsy to change policies, procedures, and laws within that country, addressing its post-Catholic crisis and the stigmatisms around suicide. The more-than-one-hundred families’ participation in those aesthetic moments of the Visual Arts Autopsy gave them an enormous sense of freedom, agency, and chances for personal change, as well as coming together to institute change.
RP: One important distinction seems to transcend the notion of produced works of art that could be or could resist being commodities, and your life as a work of art. I think the immediate question that one needs to ask, which I would argue is inevitable once the entire category of art is invoked, is not what it would take to make your life a work of art, but what it would mean to make it a successful work of art? There has to be a difference between attempting to make your life a work of art and failing, and attempting and succeeding. Perhaps there is another difference, in succeeding very well. The thing I’ve tried to argue very briefly today is that the possibilities of successful art are actually not self-definable by the artist. This has something to do with the issue of the avant-garde, but it also—more fundamentally, I’d argue—depends on shareable conditions for the possibility of non-discursive but nonetheless articulable meaning in a community at a given time. Art has a particular modality of rendering things intelligible. It is non-discursive and it is largely sensible and affective, even as it lends itself to certain forms of discursive articulation. The reliance of artwork of a historical period on various conventional conditions for the possibility of such shareability seems to me inevitable. It is at least conceivable that at certain stages of history it might be reasonable to think that the conditions for such shareability have been so distorted and degraded that it’s very unlikely that anything other than the minimal satisfactions of the conditions of art would prevail.
Art addresses itself to us as individuals, whereas politics by necessity addresses us in some sense as a collective, as humanity as such. I felt like the tension between those two issues, the relationship between the individual and the collective as addressees of art and politics, came out in different ways in each of the talks. Good politics doesn’t assume that the state of humanity in the present is the only possible state of humanity; does good art assume the same?
About the materialist account of art, I would say that art is an object not simply in the sense that it is a thing the artist has made, a “product,” but also in terms of what we might call the “social being” in the work. It seems like an artist can’t really get around the commodity form of the art object today, given that the predominant form of production today is commodity production. In this context, the socially engaged art practices I’ve seen recently seem driven to eliminate metaphor as a way of communicating, and so the art relies on this direct, one-to-one relationship between itself and the audience. A lot of it is about getting across a “message”—usually, a message concerning the lack of and need for services that the state once provided, but no longer does. On the other hand, with a Hegelian account of art, I feel like there is a problem the degree to which it posits a type of artist who doesn’t really know what he’s doing, but who simply gives form to things that don’t really quite have a form. Such an account seems to imply that it may be better that the artist is completely unaware of what he’s doing, so that later on it’s available for and completely open to interpretation. In such an account, how would it be even theoretically possible for an artist to self-consciously produce a work that’s adequate to the material conditions we live in?
MJ: Metaphor is something that creates possibility for shared experience, I think. But we also have to look at process. An artist’s process can be deeply invested within a place or within a constituency with people, with their activities. Process can look like the back-and-forth dialogue of permissions and checkpoints as a work develops, as with McGuinness’s project. The work of art also offers possibilities for reflection, and sharing that reflection. Our own, individual interpretation of a work of art, both deepens our relationship with the work and becomes the basis for communicative possibility—moving us, as Dewey would say, to the art’s ultimate ends of participation and communication. Your own life that you draw upon for such communication is your experience. You don’t necessarily need the art history, or other information; you just need to be aware, remain present in the experience. I’m interested in the possibility of works of art as this kind of mode of social communication.
WBM: If we think about art and politics in terms of the history of art, the question being raised is, what does it mean to make great works of art? Foucault has that well-known remark, which is that people ordinarily know what they do and why they do it; what they don’t know is, what does what they do, do? I think the artist has a pretty good idea of what he or she is doing in making these works—there is the sense of trying to make something like the perfect work of art, with an insistence on form. What I am suggesting is that there is a certain kind of work today that has both the capacity to produce major works of art and the capacity to produce an interesting, significant critique of our contemporary moment and that, in the main, these are not works of art that as their point take up the business of trying to help people. These are works of art that are produced as an attempt to make great works of art.
MJ: The fact that artists don’t know what the work does comes directly as a definition of art. I don’t think it is controversial to say that art involves both a creative act on the part of the artist and a re-creative act on the part of the viewer, and that those are more or less equal ends. The work of art is not finished when the artist finishes with it.
RP: The “German idea” is that works of art, as works of art, are essentially liberationist: They are connected deeply with the aspiration for the realization for freedom. What that means is an enormous and very thorny issue, but one that has come to the surface several times in our discussion. The idea that there could be a sensible embodiment of an intended meaning that is uniquely sensible, but shareable, evokes a resolution of the central modern antimony concerning freedom: We are corporeal, spacio-temporal objects, and at the same time we are subjects. With respect to our discussion today, the idea is that art preserves the possibility of this unity, as a kind of anticipation of its full realization, and this anticipation consists in the moment of actual sensible embodiment of an intended meaning in the artwork. The reason it’s supposed to be a moment of potential liberation is that the circulation and shareability of that meaning is in some way to be viewed, can be viewed, as the expression of free and equal subjects in a communicative relation of a sort that isn’t in the interest of anyone. Stating it so baldly makes it seem naïve, perhaps. This wouldn’t mean that art would not involve ideas, nor does it mean that the artist must remain ignorant of those ideas. However, I do think it is hard to imagine how art made—“in advance,” so to speak—specifically in service of certain ideas, could serve the ideal of freedom that this framework articulates. Nor is this freedom art points to, in this conception, simply the occasion for the individual to explore his or her own psyche; it is not the freedom that self-expression, per se, can express. This aspect I’ve tried to draw attention to, this shareability without the interests of anyone being served by the regime of shareability, is the aspiration that art embodies just by being art.
The discussion of the German idealist notion of freedom makes me wonder about fascism: Can great art be reactionary?
RP: I think of art as a normative term. That is, fascist art is not art; it’s just a façon de parler to call it art. It doesn’t achieve the conditions of art, so it’s not art. But then, of course, you would raise the question: How do you distinguish between bad art and good art? To put it most radically, there’s no such thing as bad art. Rather, that art which doesn’t achieve the condition of art, is not art.
WBM: Many of the major modernist poets of the first half of the 20th century completely understood themselves as fascists. Ezra Pound would only be the most obvious example. We could think of this as a discrepancy between Pound’s aesthetic commitments—that is, the kind of art he thought he was trying to make—and his political commitments. However, he himself was entirely convinced. Indeed, many lines in the cantos do explicitly profess sentiments that could only be attributed to Italian fascism. If you’re going to say that it can’t be great art if it’s fascist then you are going to have to say either Pound’s Cantos suck—which is a very implausible claim for anybody who is interested in the history of poetry—or you’re going to have to say that the thing that makes them great art somehow disconnects them from the fascism that they themselves profess. There is no question, moreover, that fascism had a profound aesthetic component; however, it does not follow from this acknowledgment that there are therefore great works of fascist art.
MJ: This, too, is a question in the design field. What is good design? One could conceivably create a very well-designed crematorium in a Nazi death camp. So we come to a question of values and ends. I think we work from personal values, which come about in terms of our position and our perspective within society. Those are things that form personal ethics and larger civic ethics. Those have everything to do with making art, making design, and living life.
WBM: Indeed, it raises the question of the relevance of the artist’s ethics, and even of the artist’s politics, to the politics of the work of art. I am skeptical of the idea that people’s political intentions and political motives have much to do with the politics of the works of art they produce. However, their aesthetic intentions, their aesthetic motives, have a great deal to do with their politics. |P
Transcribed by Carolyn Graham and Divya Menon Kohn