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

Post #1652 • March 3, 2014, 11:50 AM • 1 Comment

How is it then that Ben Davis can wall off Marxist criticism from parts of itself, parts that are better established by more notable thinkers than Davis, and not appear to his fellow progressives as, well, clownish? Because Marxism, socialism, and communism are a tangle of related but not identical ideas, each of which has a long history of use claimed to be misuse by some other faction of redistributive economics. A friend of mine, having read Part I of this series, clarified the intellectual landscape for me.

Ben Davis is not an academic Marxist, or at least not of the sort that drive you and me to such distraction. He is not an actual party member, but is in the orbit of, and subject to cadre discipline by, the International Socialist Organization. The ISO is a Trotskyist group which comes out of the "Third Camp" post-war tradition, which holds that the 1917 Bolshevik revolution was awesome, but then Stalin betrayed Lenin, and the Soviet bloc became a cruel and horrifying bastardization of socialism. So both the USA and the Soviet Union needed true workers' revolutions, and still need them today.

Haymarket Press, the publisher of Davis's book, is owned and operated by the ISO. Here is their online daily newspaper. (Their print weekly has fallen victim to the same economic forces as the capitalist press.)

The ISO is a pretty small group (though the biggest on the US far left), with about 750-1000 full members (with lots of grad students, social workers, NGO types, and a smattering of low-level union functionaries, including the vice-president of the Chicago Teachers Union), and perhaps an equal number of sympathizers akin to Davis.

The key here is that class trumps everything. For the ISO, issues of identity (race, gender, sexual orientation) are important, and postmodernism can certainly inform one's perspective, but they all too often can become a divisive distraction from the goal of building a unified working class-led revolution. But they're not rigidly dogmatic about all this (at least compared to the rest of the radical left). Which means that even though Davis travels in some of the same circles as the art world Marxists, and is often just as annoyed with them as you and me, he still sees forces there which can be tapped to raise consciousness and help in overthrowing capitalism. Not in an abstract art world sense - but in a workers-seizing-the-state sense.

There's a difference between being a member of the ISO, and being sympathetic to or comfortable working with them. Davis takes pains to be identified as the latter, referring only obliquely to the ISO in his book. But I think his writing makes it very clear what his political positions are, whether in his ISO-published book, in his most recent articles for the International Socialist Review, in his speeches at the Left Forum, or in speaking at the ISO's own annual conference.

Davis is not committing heresy, but participating in an intellectual tradition that dates to Marx himself when he noted to his French supporters Jules Guesde and Paul Larfargue that if they were Marxists, then he was not. Socialism lends itself to No True Scotsman arguments so readily because socialism never had a true Scotsman. Whether communism is the highest form socialism or, on the contrary, socialism can exist as such inside a market society is the subject of contemporary argument. Some claim that socialism advocates redistribution of capital according to each worker's productivity, rather than need, which would be communist. But that distinction would be unrecognizable by advocates of socialism throughout history, including G.B. Shaw, who called the Soviet empire an amazing success.

Boehm-Bawerk noted soon after the publication of Capital that there was no way to price goods under the labor theory of value, but it fell to Ludwig von Mises to note that there was no way to implement socialism without an all-pervading state apparatus.

Socialist society is a society of officials. The way of living prevailing in it, and the mode of thinking of its members, are determined by this fact. ... Officialdom is extended to the sphere of the spirit. Those who do not please the holders of power are not allowed to paint or to sculpt or to conduct an orchestra. Their works are not printed or performed. And if the decision does not depend directly upon the free judgment of the economic administration but is referred to the advice of an expert council the case is not materially altered. On the contrary, expert councils, which are inevitably composed of the old and the established, must be admitted to be even less competent than laymen to assist the rise of young talent with different views and perhaps greater mastery than their own. Even if the choice were referred to the whole nation the rise of independent spirits setting themselves against traditional technique and accepted opinions would not be facilitated. Such methods can only foster a race of epigones.

It matters less what arguments the redistributionists have with one another than to note that they all share a similar fondness for state control. They might as well be arguing about the ideal alloy that ought to go into the handcuffs they long to employ - or perhaps wear. The state is sometimes euphemistically called the workers or the citizens or the people, but once you aggregate them, give their will the force of law, and appoint someone to administer those laws, you get a state like it or not. State-controlled economies have a track record of economic and societal failure, not because they haven't yet correctly been implemented, but because they can't be. The road to socialism is littered with the discarded apologists who insisted that it would work if tried in a different manner, and that road is a circle.

This brings us to the titular essay. It is not an argument, it is an incantation. It begins:

1.0 Class is an issue of fundamental importance to art.

It says something about the character of Marxist criticism that the writer does not feel the need to explain why.

1.1 Inasmuch as art is a 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.

Wait, is this the explanation? I'm not going to go through all 95 assertions but it proceeds more or less like this throughout, with bald claim followed by vague exegesis. It is interesting to me that none of the reviews of Davis's book makes the briefest mention of Martin Luther's 95 Theses despite the fact that it has borrowed the literary form down to the number. Rothbard, again: Marxism is a religious creed. Ten points later:

2.1 It is part of the definition of a ruling class that it controls the material resources of society.

2.2 The ruling ideologies, which serve to reproduce this material situation, also represent the interests of the ruling class.

2.3 The dominant values given to art, therefore, will be ones that serve the interests of the current ruling class.

2.4 Concretely, within the sphere of the contemporary visual arts, the agents whose interests determine the dominant values of art are: large corporations, including auction houses and corporate collectors; art investors, private collectors and patrons; trustees and administrators of large cultural institutions and universities.

Davis never gets around to delineating what those values are. Are we seeing the corporations and divers investors glorified by the high end of the art market like Soviet art used to extol the state? Even implicitly? Of course not. The values are Davis's, in which aesthetics take a back seat to political concerns and objects are evaluated according to their conceptual underpinnings. This odd situation, in which radical values and establishment values are somehow the same in the art world, was observed by Michael Paraskos:

The New Art History embedded in the universities a marxist derived methodology for understanding art with such success it is difficult now even to imagine a form of art history that does not derive its ultimate methodology from the New Art History. But as a cynic we are surely justified in asking why a supposedly radical understanding of art based on the principle that it is an epiphenomenon, limping after reality, and reflecting the class structure of society has found such a happy home in a bourgeois habitat. Surely we should question how the New Art History moved so quickly from being a marxist phenomenon to what we might term a bourgeois-marxist one, with even Kate Middleton studying art history under tutors whose interests include the ways in which art is "employed by the political classes to influence public opinion and behaviour."

I have no ready answers to these questions, only the questions themselves. But they are questions that should even bring a marxist up short to ask how this could have happened? How could what was purported to be a radical understanding of art in opposition to bourgeois values be so fully subsumed into bourgeois life? In researching this paper I was shown an interesting book called Art in Its Time, by Paul Mattick, who is Professor of Philosophy at Adelphi University in New York. Citing Marx as an authority Mattick suggests that under marxism: It is imaginable, perhaps even likely, that art would lose the special social value which today stems from its contrast with industrial production and consumption, and which enables it to function as an emblem of class superiority. He then adds a telling rider: Interestingly, something like this change in social character is already happening, as the boundaries between art and such lifestyle fields as cuisine and design, on the one hand, and commercial entertainment, on the other, are becoming increasingly permeable. So we do not even need a marxist society for this to happen. A bourgeois capitalist one will do as Mattick seems to suggest that the marxist project and the bourgeois capitalist project are close enough at some level to see a commensurate debasement of art. That might explain the ready assimilation of the New Art History – that it was a prescient form of bourgeois-marxism.

Thus even by this early point in the book, not only is Davis's philosophical position in Marxism starting to fissure, a gap has opened between his polemic and actual goings-on in the art world. Much of the rest of the book consists of watching this gap yawn.




March 3, 2014, 4:49 PM

After posting this I ran across an article by Daniel Hannan remarking that competing claims upon true socialism did not just take place within the communist left, but also between the communist left and the fascist left.

In fact, authoritarianism was the common feature of socialists of both National and Leninist varieties, who rushed to stick each other in prison camps or before firing squads. Each faction loathed the other as heretical, but both scorned free-market individualists as beyond redemption. Their battle was all the fiercer, as Hayek pointed out in 1944, because it was a battle between brothers.



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