In defense of the real world

ART IS in crisis. First of all, contemporary art exists in a world of multiple crises. It exists in a world of rapid industrialization (resembling something from a Dickens novel), as well as a world of “post-industrial” ruins. It exists amidst racism, sexism, inequality, and economic chaos.

Secondly, contemporary art is riddled with its own contradictions—related to the “real world” problems above. For example, what is the role of art produced by an individual—or a small group—when millions of images are now instantly available at the push of a button?

For generations art’s answer to technological innovation was to make itself a radical laboratory for signification—as expressed in the modernist succession of avant-garde movements. In that process something called “the art world” was created—a phenomenon that is actually a peculiar industry—peculiar for industrial capitalism in that it is characterized by autonomous commodity (art) production geared toward a boutique market (the art gallery), and given validation by a specialized group of intellectuals (in art schools, journals, museums, etc.). The appeal of art is the autonomy of the artist. As Julian Stallabrass writes:

The freedom of art is more than an ideal. If, despite the small chance of success, the profession of artist is so popular, it is because it offers the prospect of a labor that is apparently free of narrow specialization, allowing the artists like heroes in the movies, to endow work and life with their own meanings.

Artists have, therefore, consistently been drawn to radical politics. They are, however, also confronted by the fact—as Ben Davis writes—that there is “no elegant fit between art and politics.” What art does well is not necessarily what a genuine social movement needs at any given moment. As Davis writes of the Arab Spring:

As images of Tahrir Square filled the airwaves I found myself writing to artists in Egypt for an article about how they were responding to the uprising. An Egyptian painter wrote back, chiding me via email and questioning the terms of the inquiry. “It’s not about artists now,” she wrote. “It’s about all Egyptians.”

In other words, the most important thing for artists to do was get their asses down to Tahrir Square like everyone else. The immediate needs of the revolution dwarfed artistic concerns.

Many artists and academics won’t like this answer. Those who produce and love art often give it phantasmagorical qualities—for good and bad reasons. To paraphrase Terry Eagleton, talking (or writing) about art is not unlike discussing sex. The tendency is either to exaggerate or minimize its importance. This is partly because art itself is one of the basic necessities of life. Just like sex (or food), art can provoke “magical” responses in the human mind. Ernst Fischer has argued that this came from art’s development in tandem with human evolution as the projection of human agency (through labor) over that which was not yet mastered.

There is, however, another reason for confusion surrounding the importance of contemporary art. In recent decades the rise of postmodernism—a confused set of ideas that emphasized the fragmentation of ideology and narratives—appeared to have “freed” art. It became an art world conceit that art could be anything—any signifier, artifact, object, or idea. On the other hand, the exponential growth of art theory and criticism gave more and more importance to the role of artists and intellectuals. Some argued that, in the supposed absence of a revolutionary proletariat, intellectuals and artists were the center of a new critical and oppositional praxis.

In truth, of course, art can’t be anything— there is an arduous process (related to the growth of theory) that determines what goes in (and doesn’t go in) the magic white cube. Moreover, the audience for visual art remains a distinct minority. In the twenty-first century, art has seemed to become simultaneously heavy (in its supposed world-historical importance) and at the same time unbearably light (in its open-ended practice and relatively small audience).

Davis describes postmodernism, revising Frederic Jameson, as the “cultural ideology of neoliberalism.” Postmodernism’s emphasis on fragmentation, hostility to “metanarratives” (especially Marxism), decentralization, and hyper-subjectivity, fit perfectly with the globalization of capital and its squeeze on the working class. This insight—borrowed in part from David Harvey—is related to Davis’ attempt to relocate art in relationship to social class. It is the central thrust of 9.5 Theses on Art and Class. At the same time Davis does not stop there. He unpacks related questions dealing with artistic form, content, sexism, racism, inequality, and conceptualism.

Of course, the starting point of most art criticism is the image or object. There is no problem with this per se. The problem comes when the work of art is left there—a free-floating sign separate from the rest of life. The subject of art becomes, too often, art itself rather than the “real world.” Davis also begins his book by discussing a work of art, but brings the discussion of this work back into relationship with the rest of the world. The piece in question is Brooklyn artist William Powhida’s “How the New Museum Committed Suicide with Banality,” an  “Internet-age Daumier” drawing produced for the Brooklyn Rail criticizing the New Museum’s outsourcing of curatorial discretion to wealthy businessman Dakis Joannou and art world scourge Jeff Koons.

In 2010, at Davis’s suggestion, Powida and artist Jennifer Dalton curated an exhibit in response to the New Museum. As Davis notes, class is often expressed in the art world as a reaction against the art market. When the exhibit opened, Davis felt that the artists were struggling to find a language to discuss class beyond the art market. He wrote “9.5 Theses on Art and Class” and—channeling Martin Luther—taped them to the gallery door to provide a nuanced Marxist analysis of social class and contemporary art.

There has been a great deal of confusion on this topic in “art circles,” where the tendency is to deemphasize class and exaggerate individual subjective action. There has also been a tendency among artists to identify as working class for ideological reasons. In fact, many artists are workers—but when they are working (as teachers, bartenders, or gallery assistants) they generally aren’t artists. Artists—inasmuch as they are artists—are middle class (in Marxist terms). The entire structure of the art world is defined by its individualized relationship to commodity production. This is not a moral criticism. It is the best pivot point to understand art’s relationship to the world:

The middle class, by definition, is a middle term between labor and capital; if the reflexive need to elevate itself above “common” alienated work is one pole of its existence, a natural hostility to Big Capital is the other. (As a famous letter from King Leopold to Queen Victoria warns, rather amusingly: “The dealings with artists. . . require a great prudence; they are acquainted with all classes of society, and for that very reason dangerous.”) In a world as disenchanted as ours, desires to escape the routine humiliations of the economy are often channeled into the notion of becoming a visual artist. This investment can, in turn, imbue the profession with a genuinely radical character, making it a hospitable conductor for all kinds of alternative energies.

Indeed, beyond the bourgeois patron and the academic specialist, art audiences are drawn to art out of the need to escape the disenchantment of everyday life. The art world, however, is unable to resolve its core contradictions. Ideas of craft, conceptualism, participation (the art world is still disproportionately white and male), radical gestures (street art, etc.), and collective action—all come crashing, again and again, into the realities of neoliberal capital and economic crisis. Only revolution will begin to resolve this.

The first step for artists in the here and now is to recognize that art is not just an intellectual game. Art must be more. Indeed, the language of contemporary art often fails to articulate the breadth of contemporary human experience and suffering.

Art is “magic.” But this magic only works in dialectical interplay with the narratives of actual life. Separated from the real world, that magic becomes hollow and reified. As Davis writes, “[A]rt is not a world unto itself. Art is part of the world. That fact has to be a fundamental starting point for everything.” 

Issue #67

September 2009

Iran: rebellion and reaction

Issue contents

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Critical Thinking


  • Humanitarian imperialism and its apologists

    Ashley Smith reviews The Thin Blue Line: How Humanitarianism Went to War by Conor Foley; Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror by Mahmood Mamdani; Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War by Jean Bricmont; Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law by China Miéville; and The Liberal Defense of Murder by Richard Seymour
  • Debating how to change the world

    Eric Kerl reviews Wobblies and Zapatistas: Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism, and Radical History by Staughton Lynd and Andrej Grubacic