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On "9.5 Theses on Art and Class," Part I

Post #1631 • November 20, 2013, 10:28 AM • 2 Comments

I had planned to write about 9.5 Theses on Art and Class even before I learned that I was in it. The author, Ben Davis, seemed to have an especially solid handle on Marxism for a Marxist critic (this is by no means a given) and was prepared to talk about it in a plainspoken manner. Marxism, of course, is utterly failed doctrine, but the idea occurred to me that if it were possible to see art through the lens of Marxist concerns then it ought to be equally valid to view it through those of, say, Eugen von Boehm-Bawerk, one of Marx’s contemporaries who most effectively critiqued him. Best of all would be no lenses whatsoever except the ones in your corneas, but the late antecedents of Marxism so wholly dominate art theory that it would be useful to have another political position from which to push back. Since politically-driven criticism is Marxist territory, one has to become at least somewhat familiar with it like it or not if one is going to compete with it.

Davis describes the origin of the book’s titular essay like so.

In an article summing up the controversy [around William Powhida’s drawing How the New Museum Committed Suicide with Banality], I suggested that Powhida curate a response to Skin Fruit - the vaguely leering title of the Koons-curated New Museum spectacle - and in the spring of 2010, the gallerist Ed Winkleman invited Powhida and another artist, Jennifer Dalton, to curate just such a response show at his small outpost on the westernmost reaches of Chelsea. The conceived of it as a kind of freewheeling workshop or brainstorming session, with anyone who wanted to take part in the discussion about money’s impact on art invited to do so. It was called “#class.”

Scanning the proposed contributions to the event’s program in advance … it seemed to me that artists were struggling - and failing - to find a language with which to engage with the topic of artists’ economic position. I wrote the short pamphlet 9.5 Theses on Art and Class over the course of a weekend as my contribution to the show. During the opening, I passed out copies and taped the text to Winkleman’s front door. A few weeks later, I returned to participate in a discussion of the text with Powhida and Dalton, which attracted an eager through eclectic crowd (including one clownish commentator from the conservative New Criterion magazine, who suggested that the problem with contemporary art was that the government art subsidies were too lavish). Yet, as with most debates about art and politics or art and the economy, the conversation felt strangely centerless, as if we were all searching for a common framework upon which to draw.

I attended Davis’s talk and can confirm its centerlessness. In fact, the “clownish commentator” bit is referring to me. For whatever reason, when an artist has an opinion about politics and economics, the former tend to be liberal and the latter tend to be redistributionist. Being an artist all but requires a dollop or more of liberalism about personal issues, and I think in most cases that extends to liberalism about political and economic matters. This wasn’t my path. I went from personal liberalism to the politics of liberty, which was natural enough, and from there to an alignment with fiscal conservatism and minarchism. Artists are famously open-minded, but you can’t depend on their minds being open to the proposition of exploring how much we can shrink the state. Neither can you rely on them to make distinctions in political thinking any more nuanced than the vaunted one between Liberal and Evil. Davis’s audience was no exception. During the proceedings, someone marveled at the fact that there were free-market libertarians who thought that the solution to the 2008 financial crisis was less regulation. Someone else added, with audible disbelief, that there was even a conservative art magazine, The New Criterion.

At that point I raised my hand and introduced myself as a free-market libertarian who had just had his first piece published by The New Criterion, and added to the second someone, “Nice to meet you.” Rather than allow Davis’s audience to opine for an hour as if they were all among fellow believers, outing myself as a heathen felt like the honest thing to do. I did my best to explain, briefly, that the libertarian position on the financial crisis was that the government had its fingerprints all over the problem, and that there were distressing parallels between the closeness of the state with the banking system and the closeness of the state with the museum system. I talked about the imprimatur that the state stamps upon certain artists via the museums, and that collectors use it to increase the value of their holdings. In the final analysis the art world was full of the sort of state cronyism that was being rightly decried in the financial sector. Davis generously let me speak unchallenged and I was careful to cut myself off after a short while, at which point he moved on to another topic without further discussion.

So, first of all, I was not there from TNC per se, though I was (and remain) proud to have been published by them at that point, and it should be clarified that I was speaking on my own behalf. I would have no great concern if I presented myself foolishly, but I would feel ashamed if I had dishonored my editors. I assume that they are wise enough about the world to know that Davis, like at least one member of his audience that day, is simply galled about the existence of a conservative art magazine and that I probably didn’t do so badly.

Secondly, I did not and would not claim that “the problem with contemporary art was that the government art subsidies [are] too lavish.” They are not - the NEA provides about 9% of all arts funding, and in 2010 its annual budget was being spent every thirteen hours in Iraq. My complaint is that the subsidies that do exist, along with laws about tax exemption, are sanctioning certain kinds of contemporary art as a public good, and this has an outsize distorting effect upon the art market that favors socially or politically connected artists as well as a kind of politicized, academic thinking among curators. I didn’t voice that concern during his talk, but in a brief conversation with Davis and Winkleman afterward. I also remember answering a question put to me by Ed to the effect that if the subsidies are so small, what’s the harm in paying them? I answered that if the work I like is going to be excluded from museum exhibitions for political reasons, on the basis of style, then it’s unfair to ask me to underwrite its exclusion from contemporary art history. Davis then challenged me that it’s likely that we’d end up with the same art being made even if it were all being privately funded. I replied that I would be just fine with that. Indeed, that would be the right way to make it. Davis seems to be conflating my concerns with someone else’s.

Thirdly, I was not just someone in the eclectic audience. I too had been invited by Dalton and Powhida to give a talk as part of “#class,” which I did, right after Davis. Davis didn’t attend it.

This anecdote appears in the first essay of the book. Entitled “Art and Class,” it sets up the broad concerns that appear in the pages to come after. It also portends the lack of serious regard it’s willing grant ideas that contradict the Marxist project, starting with the guy from The New Criterion with the big shoes and the red rubber nose. Early on the reader discovers that he is in for a long, tendentious ride.

The first order of business is a rectification of what is, in fact, Marxist criticism. Citing Adorno’s “loss of confidence … in the revolutionary potential of the proletariat” and Michael Hardt’s aestheticizing of the proletariat, Davis claims that

these are examples of the botched uses of Marxist analysis, not the real deal. “Marxism,” after all, is a plastic term. It has meant many different things to many different people - from the revolutionary romanticism of Arts and Crafts guru William Morris to the bowdlerized, totalitarian ideologies associated with Stalin and Mao and the soggy, apolitical abstractions taught in the halls of academia. Setting such false interpretations aside and returning to the underexplored Marxist idea of class still promises to do what no new “Theory of the Market” does.

In other words, here is our True Scotsman. (Davis is referring here to a 2006 essay by Jerry Saltz in which he laments, "There is no effective 'Theory of the Market' that isn't just a rehash of Marxist ideology.") As Murray Rothbard put it in Karl Marx as Religious Eschatologist,

Marxism is a religious creed. This statement has been common among critics of Marx, and since Marxism is an explicit enemy of religion, such a seeming paradox would offend many Marxists, since it clearly challenged the allegedly hard-headed scientific materialism on which Marxism rested. In the present day, oddly enough, an age of liberation theology and other flirtations between Marxism and the Church, Marxists themselves are often quick to make this same proclamation.

Certainly, one obvious way in which Marxism functions as a religion is the lengths to which Marxists will go to preserve their system against obvious errors or fallacies. Thus, when Marxian predictions fail even though they are allegedly derived from scientific laws of history, Marxists go to great lengths to change the terms of the original prediction.

A notorious example is Marx's law of the impoverishment of the working class under capitalism. When it became all too clear that the standard of living of the workers under industrial capitalism was rising instead of falling, Marxists fell back on the view that what Marx "really" meant by impoverishment was not immiseration but relative deprivation. One of the problems with this fallback defense is that impoverishment is supposed to be the motor of the proletarian revolution, and it is difficult to envision the workers resorting to bloody revolution because they only enjoy one yacht apiece while capitalists enjoy five or six.

Another notorious example was the response of many Marxists to Böhm-Bawerk's conclusive demonstration that the labor theory of value could not account for the pricing of goods under capitalism. Again, the fallback response was that what Marx "really meant" was not to explain market pricing at all, but merely to assert that labor hours embed some sort of mystically inherent "values" into goods that are, however, irrelevant to the workings of the capitalist market. If this were true, then it is difficult to see why Marx labored for a great part of his life in an unsuccessful attempt to complete Capital and to solve the value-price problem.

Likewise, even Adorno can be said to have gotten Marx wrong if his conclusions about cultural production more or less deemphasized class struggle. The plasticity, as Davis puts it, of "Marxism" may allow for this, but it settles nothing. Rothbard introduces his essay with a salutary reminder (additional emphais mine):

The key to the intricate and massive system of thought created by Karl Marx is at bottom a simple one: Karl Marx was a communist.

A seemingly trite and banal statement set alongside Marxism's myriad of jargon-ridden concepts in philosophy, economics, and culture, yet Marx's devotion to communism was his crucial focus, far more central than the class struggle, the dialectic, the theory of surplus value, and all the rest.

Communism was the great goal, the vision, the desideratum, the ultimate end that would make the sufferings of mankind throughout history worthwhile. History was the history of suffering, of class struggle, of the exploitation of man by man. In the same way as the return of the Messiah, in Christian theology, will put an end to history and establish a new heaven and a new earth, so the establishment of communism would put an end to human history.

Nevertheless this distinction of Davis's is crucial for the rest of his argument. In order to make it work, he needs an idealized Marxist criticism which he can pit against actual capitalism at its worst. On the one hand we have dismaying stories about the exploitation of arts workers. He cites the 1973 letter from Hollis Frampton to MoMA complaining that everyone was paid for the production of his experimental films except him, the 2011 legal complaint of artist Dana Melamed against her gallery for fraudulent refusal to pay her for sold work, and several other examples. On the other hand, we have a critical lens, Davis's sanitized Marxism, for analyzing such woes, ostensibly rightly. Davis, of course, is setting up capitalism for a shellacking. At this early point in the book, the word "neoliberal" - a leftist pejorative for anything pro-market - has already appeared several times. Thus capitalism can be presented as leading inexorably to the exploitation of the worker, while Marxist criticism can't be said to lead inexorably to "soggy, apolitical abstractions taught in the halls of academia" or its attendant prolixity and co-opted values, nor can Marxism applied in the political sphere be said to lead inexorably to the Holodomor. This rhetorical maneuver makes life terrifically convenient for Davis. Capitalism has everything to answer for, and Marxism, reduced to Davis's minuscule subset, has nothing to answer for.

Postmodernism means never having to say you're sorry. Everyone else does, but you don't.



A Reader

November 21, 2013, 6:00 PM

It's amazing how the art press gave this book praise simply because Ben Davis wrote and got it published. Did anyone even pretend to read it? I hope art history professors don't make their students suffer through it. That would guarantee even more graduates buried in debt lose interest in art as soon as they leave the fantasy land known as Academia, where everyone gets a studio space, and detailed critiques, and to pretend that economic reality won't crush their unrealistic expectations and naive narcissism right after they receive their degrees.


Alan Pocaro

November 24, 2013, 6:24 PM

Perhaps someone forgot to tell Ben Davis that on January 1st, 2000 at 12:00 am, the twentieth century officially ended. He is by no means the only guilty party here, but I think it's high time that artists, art-writers, critics, et. al. get their coats on, because the party's over. It's been over for a while now.

Instead of trying to reanimate last century's rotting intellectual corpse, we ought to be seeking new paradigms for thinking about art, talking about art, and heaven forbid, making it.





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