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The artist at work

Robin Treadwell

Platypus Review 63 | February 2014

book-cover-and-luther

The cover of Ben Davis’s book 9.5 Theses on Art and Class with as an image of Martin Luther posting the 95 Theses on the Wittenberg church door on October 31, 1517.

 

Book Review: Ben Davis, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013.

ON A MAY NIGHT IN 2012, Sotheby’s sold a version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream for 119.9 million dollars, setting a new record for the price paid for a single work of art. Meanwhile, union art handlers, locked out in a months-long dispute over a new contract, picketed the auction house along with Occupy Museums activists. While this sad little snapshot of art world disparity is not exactly new, the past few years have seen this type of excess thrown into sharp relief – against the background of the 2008 financial crisis and, to a lesser extent, the Occupy movement. Niche art blogs, art magazines, and more mainstream outlets are increasingly scandalized by the intersection of art and money, perhaps because it has become so glaring. For instance, last year Reuters’finance blogger, Felix Salmon, wrote an outraged piece chiding a Citibank “research report” on the artist Gerhard Richter, complete with a graph tracking his auction prices and those of other blue-chip artists in comparison to the S&P 500.[1] In 2011, the New York Times published a lengthy expose of Ronald Lauder’s strategic donations of art to his own museum, the Neue Galerie, as a sophisticated tax evasion strategy.[2] Prominent art writer Jerry Saltz periodically chimes in on the subject, lately with complaints about the dominance and corrupting influence of “mega-galleries” such as Gagosian, a franchise with fourteen locations worldwide, calling them “too big not to fail.”[3] The legendary art critic Dave Hickey has opted out of the game altogether, preferring not to continue on as a member of the “courtier class”: “All we [art editors and critics] do is wander around the palace and advise very rich people. It’s not worth my time,” he told the Observer.[4] Additionally, museums and other art institutions host a seemingly endless series of public forums, talks and panel discussions with titles such as “Materials, Money & Crisis” and “Art Against Reification.”

Artists, too, have long voiced concerns. The artist Andrea Fraser has made a career of institutional critique; her inclusion in the 2012 Whitney Biennial may be a sign of this particular genre’s renewed cachet. The Biennial is traditionally viewed as an indicator of the art world’s general mood, and in 2012 this mood was introspective art-about-art. The New York Times’ Roberta Smith praised the show for its avoidance of “usual suspects and blue-chip galleries,” going on to write that it “separates art objects from the market and moves them closer to where they come from, artists.”[5] Fraser’s contribution, an incisive essay titled “There’s No Place Like Home,” argues that art discourse, her own brand of institutional critique included, has itself become co-opted; moreover, it often serves as a way to avoid actually dealing with issues in a meaningful way — critique as a form of inoculation.

Despite all the hand-wringing over the economics of the art world, one rarely finds class mentioned, much less Marxism. This despite the fact that art theory still employs the language of (Marxist) cultural theory via the Frankfurt school — as Andrea Fraser puts it in the above-mentioned essay, the “broad and often unquestioned claim” is that “art in some way critiques, negates, questions, challenges, confronts, contests, subverts, or transgresses norms, conventions, hierarchies, relations of power and domination, or other social structures.”[6] One gets the sense, however, that the contemporary art world considers itself much too (post-) postmodern and sophisticated to seriously give credence to anything as reductive as Marxism. Yet there is clearly a yearning, at least in some quarters, for a more systematic way of addressing the situation art finds itself in at present.

This is the somewhat fraught atmosphere into which Ben Davis’s new book of essays, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, emerges. Davis, a self-identified Marxist and activist who was until recently the executive editor of Artinfo.com, wrote the title essay as a contribution to a show at Winkleman Gallery in Chelsea. The show, “#class,” was a response to yet another art world controversy, over a show at the New Museum devoted to the collection of a wealthy trustee, Dakis Joannou, and curated not by one of the museum’s staff, but by an art-star friend of Joannou, the much-loathed Jeff Koons. A numbered, cross-indexed series of declarative statements, which Davis originally taped to the gallery door a la Martin Luther, the essay stands out as the book’s boldest and most rigorous chapter:

Thesis 1.0: “Class is an issue of fundamental importance for art.”

1.1: “Inasmuch as art is part of and not independent of society, and society is marked by class divisions, these will also affect the functioning and character of the sphere of the visual arts.”

1.7: “ … a critique of the art market is not the same as a critique of class in the sphere of the visual arts. Class is more fundamental and determinate than the market” (27).

The essay’s central argument is that “the predominant character of this sphere [of the visual arts] is middle-class” (28). By this, Davis means that artists have a degree of authority over the conditions and, to some extent, products of their own work that wage-laborers, no matter how well-paid, do not; but that, unlike the ruling class, they are not “capital personified,” i.e., they pursue their work for more than simply profit.

This is an unexpected twist that goes against the traditional, romantic view of the artist as a revolutionary, either part of the proletariat or at least firmly on its side. Davis takes pains to distinguish visual artists from other creative professionals, taking a few swipes at Hardt and Negri’s concept of “immaterial labor” along the way. He quotes Marx’s Theory of Surplus Value, saying “a member of the petit-bourgeoisie is ‘cut up into two persons. … As owner of the means of production he is a capitalist; as a labourer he is his own wage-labourer’” (23). In other words, the nature of artistic labor is inherently caught between the demands of the market and the artist’s free self-expression. In Davis’s view, this “admission saves you to some degree from the Manichean position of seeing art as either commercial and corrupt or noncommercial and pure”  (25), thus diffusing some of the rhetoric casting the art market as the source of all evil, and suggesting that perhaps we should be looking at a slightly bigger picture, beyond the art world to the world at large.

The rest of the book’s essays do just that. Most originated as articles for different art websites, and as such are more accessible than the title essay (in fact, the book as a whole is surprisingly straightforward and jargon-free). Many of the topics — street art, hipsters, the “crisis” of criticism — will be familiar to followers of the art scene, but Davis’s well-researched, in-depth approach rescues them from redundancy.

For example, “White Walls, Glass Ceiling,” an essay on the persistent underrepresentation of female artists, goes beyond simple recognition of the fact of sexism to its economic underpinnings: “the persistent ‘wealth gap’ between women and men in the economy at large” (110) means that not only are things more difficult for female artists struggling to make it, but that art collectors themselves are far more likely to be male. One would expect an economic explanation from a declared Marxist; what is not expected is the range of other factors Davis draws on in the essay, directing our attention to the “notoriously opaque … mechanisms by which artists come to show at a gallery” (111) and the influence of the gains of, and backlash against, the feminist movement as a whole. The amount of research required for those few pages is impressive. Still, since Davis himself considers the book’s original contribution to be his thesis about the “middle class character” of artists, this argument is worth exploring further.

The “middle class character” of artists

woman-painting
Young woman painting al fresco in Florida, 1948.

 

By disconnecting artists from the proletariat, Davis hopes to take some of the pressure off of art to accomplish political goals by itself. The implication is that the “fantastically overblown claims” made for art by “even the best art theory” (25) partly stem from a misguided notion of artists themselves as revolutionaries (the proletariat, of course, being the revolutionary class). Therefore, casting artists as middle class entrepreneurs provides us with more realistic expectations about the limits of art.

This move should be seen in the wider context of postmodern theory since Derrida, which favors (and displaces everything else into) language and culture, denying the importance or even existence of material conditions in favor of signs and symbols. But, in taking the pressure off art to be revolutionary, Davis places a perhaps inordinate amount of faith in activism to do the same. Davis repeatedly characterizes his brand of Marxism as “activist-oriented,” taking a dim or dismissive view of “academic” Marxists, whom he lumps in with “post-Marxists and postmodernists,” and contrasts with “serious Marxist activists.” (2) But, as Ross Wolfe has pointed out, “the history of ‘activism’ goes back farther in the history of aesthetics than in the history of politics … figures [such as Lenin] understood themselves as revolutionaries, not ‘activists.’” Wolfe uses the example of the Iraq war protests, which, although unprecedented in scale and scope, did not prevent the war from going ahead as planned.[7]

This is not at all to say that activism is ineffectual. Obviously, it can achieve substantial and worthwhile political gains. But often, these gains are short-term and specific — not the type of thing a theorist like Theodor Adorno meant when he held up art as the one refuge of, as Davis puts it, “experience that wasn’t subordinated to the instrumentalized logic of capitalism” (10). It is clear that Davis, too, hopes for a future in which capitalist society is transformed. In the book’s concluding chapter, he cites the Communist Manifesto’s prophecy that “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all,”[8] but what is not so clear is whether he thinks that activism, as opposed to revolution, could effect such a transformation. As far as art’s role in such a change, Davis has said in an interview with Tyler Green on the Modern Art Notes Podcast: “I think you should start with the idea that, in the immediate term, art is not a political strategy. However [...] I do think in terms of building a larger imagery of ideas, yeah, art’s going to be very important.”[9]

Paradoxically, much like Adorno, whose version of Marxism he calls “botched” (12), Davis is anxious to defend art’s autonomy. It is important to remember why Adorno took this position, however. Not in order to displace class struggle into culture, but because he thought art “perpetuated … the idea of a decent life,” providing a vision of what the long-term stakes of class struggle were.[10] When, for example, Adorno writes of the composer Arnold Schoenberg’s “impatience with sensuous appearance” that “in the midst of the blindness of specialization, his music suddenly saw the light that shines beyond the aesthetic realm,”[11] he is arguing that the value of art is that it points to something beyond itself, not that it accomplishes particular political or even aesthetic goals. Adorno extends this notion to cultural critique as well: “the unideological thought is that which does not permit itself to be reduced to ‘operational terms’ and instead strives solely to help the things themselves to that articulation from which they are otherwise cut off by the prevailing language.”[12]

Here he and Davis part ways. Davis is willing to defend art’s ability to hold out hope for a better world, but unwilling to extend this privileged position to critique, taking a generally dim view of art theory throughout the book. Instead, Davis emphasizes the utopian potential of the middle class ideal embodied by artistic labor, where “one’s investment in creativity in general overlaps with one’s professional identity” (32), supposedly escaping the instrumental logic of capitalism so abhorred by the Frankfurt school, while providing a glimpse of what life under a classless society might look like. Davis acknowledges that the middle class is “under-theorized” (indeed, in the Manifesto, Marx and Engels famously state that “society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other — Bourgeoisie and Proletariat”).[13] He also admits that “from a ruling-class perspective, it is useful to promote the example of middle-class creative labor” (29), “the term ‘artist’ has connotations of freedom and personal satisfaction that can be used to obscure real relationships of exploitation” (16), and “inasmuch as the vast majority of contemporary artists do not make a living through their art but get by through other jobs, they are in actual fact members of the working class” (21). Davis’s theory nevertheless locates the revolutionary potential of art in the example of personally fulfilling artistic labor rather than in art itself, no matter how illusory and ideological this example may be.

These issues could be explored in more detail than this book review is capable of, but readers interested in either art or politics (or both) should be grateful to Davis for starting the conversation. And happily, most reviews have been positive for this very reason. When the reviews have been negative, however, most notably in the left-leaning Jacobin, they critique Davis for his “smug, self-righteous” tone and “crudely reductive” take on feminist identity politics.[14] As Davis later responded in the same publication, these are stock criticisms of Marxism in general as much as his book in particular.[15] Davis even explicitly states that “sexism has its own special dynamics that have to be specially combated” (115). In fact, the overall response to the book could serve as a barometer for what happens when one mentions the word “class” in the first place. Some are relieved that it has finally been said, others object to the encroachment of materialism. One achievement of Davis’s provocative book is that it positions readers, particularly those unfamiliar with Marxism, to get beyond the mental wall that the concept of class often sets up, and get at its consequences. |P

 


[1]. Felix Salmon, “The Commodification of Gerhard Richter,” Reuters, March 12, 2012, <http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2012/03/04/the-commodification-of-gerhard-richter/>.
[2]. David Kocieniewski, “A Family’s Billions, Artfully Sheltered,” New York Times, November 27, 2011.
[3]. Jerry Saltz, “Saltz on the Trouble with Mega-Galleries,” Vulture (blog), October 13, 2013, <http://www.vulture.com/2013/10/trouble-with-mega-art-galleries.html>.
[4]. Edward Hellmore and Paul Gallagher, “Doyen of American Art Critics Turns His Back on the ‘Nasty, Stupid’ World of Modern Art,” The Observer, October 27, 2012. (Chapter 1 of Davis’s book also cites this interview in its own discussion of popular disgust with the art market.)
[5]. Roberta Smith, “A Survey of a Different Color,” New York Times, March 2, 2012, <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/02/arts/design/2012-whitney-biennial.html>.
[6]. Andrea Fraser, “There’s No Place Like Home,” in Whitney Biennial 2012, ed. Elisabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders (New York, NY: The Whitney Museum of American Art, 2012), 28.
[7]. Ross Wolfe, “Divagation on ‘Activism’ in Aesthetics and Politics,” The Charnel-House (blog), September 18, 2013, <http://rosswolfe.wordpress.com/2013/09/18/divagation-on-activism-in-aesthetics-and-politics>.
[8]. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, in The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd edition, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1978), 491.
[9]. Ben Davis, interview by Tyler Green, Modern Art Notes Podcast, August 8, 2013, <http://traffic.libsyn.com/modernartnotespodcast/MANPodcastEpisodeNinetyTwo.mp3>.
[10]. Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 252.
[11]. Theodor Adorno, Prisms, trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber (Boston: MIT Press, 1981), 170.
[12]Ibid., 28.
[13]. Marx and Engels, Manifesto, in The Marx-Engels Reader, 474.
[14]. Rachel Wetzler, “Art Class,” Jacobin, September 2013, <http://jacobinmag.com/2013/09/art-class/>.
[15]. Ben Davis, “Art and Cynicism,” Jacobin, November 2013, <http://www.jacobinmag.com/2013/11/art-and-cynicism/>.

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