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?
Panel held as part of the third annual Platypus International Convention, on Saturday, April 30th, 2011, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
After its apparent exhaustion as a project of social transformation, Marxism seems to remain alive as a cultural and hermeneutic endeavor. Self-avowedly Marxist theorists -- Zizek, Badiou, Ranciere -- exert a heavy, if opaque, influence on the self-understanding and practice of contemporary art and inspire research programs in the humanities. Despite its radical appeal, "Marxist" theory may ultimately flatter the political and aesthetic claims of the present. Could investigation of of the now obscure historical Marxist cultural critique of Leon Trotsky, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin bring to recognition, and therein challenge the inadaquecies of the present? What opaque historical transformations does the difficulty of such work indicate? How might the long-abused concepts of autonomy, medium specificity, kitsch, avant garde -- form part of what Marx called the "ruthless critique of the present." What might the problems of aesthetics and culture have to do with the political project of the self-education of the Left?