Artists’ self-important claims for their work makes them worse than useless for political activism
Can you call yourself an artist and an activist at the same time? Or is the artists’ personal brand always in the way? 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, Ben Davis’s new collection of essays, addresses these questions and other similar ones with an admirable clarity that invites debate. In these pieces, Davis, a Marxist art critic and executive editor of Artinfo.com, shows little overt interest in policing the boundaries of art—there are virtually no assessments of the aesthetic value of particular artworks. Yet he ends up preserving a nebulous view of “great” art’s supposedly objective appeal that undermines his apparent political concerns. Art accrues meaning via its audience, which is inevitably structured by social relations. To imagine that its value can come from anywhere else is to obfuscate the centrality of class that Davis is otherwise eager to bring to light.
Class relations are central to Davis’s attempt to rethink the relationship between art and political action. Artists are eager to identify themselves with—and even lay claim to—efforts like the Occupy movement, but their involvement, Davis argues, muddles protest and derails organizational efforts more often than not. When artistic practice is posited as a politics, it tends to emphasize individual effort and distract movements from pursuing the sort of social change that could benefit that large portion of the population not interested in living their lives as art.
What gets in the way of artists’ making substantive political contributions? The collection’s title essay proposes that artists’ class position opposes their interests to those of typical protesters, even when both are concerned with economic survival. Because artists, unlike wage laborers, have a direct stake in what they produce and face no workplace discipline other than what they impose on themselves, their political attitudes are structurally different from those of the working class, who know they are interchangeable parts in the machine of capitalism and must organize collectively to resist it. “The predominant character” of the contemporary art scene, on the other hand, “is middle class,” Davis contends, referring not to a particular income or earning potential but rather to artists’ relation to their labor. Artists work for themselves, own what they make, and must concern themselves with how to sell it. Though art has often made a mission of shocking middlebrow taste and artists have often congregated in urban Bohemian enclaves in working-class neighborhoods, they are less vanguard proletarians than petit bourgeois.
This makes artists inescapably individualistic, concerned chiefly about differentiating their product. As Davis notes, “an overemphasis on the creation of individual, signature forms—a professional requirement—can as often make it a distraction from the needs of an actual movement, which are after all collective, welding together tastes of all kinds.” Artists must produce their reputation as a singular commodity on the market, which makes their chief obstacle other would-be artists rather than capitalism as a system, regardless of whatever critical content might inhere in their work. When artists patronize the working class with declarations of solidarity, their vows are motivated less by a desire for social change than by the imperative that they enhance the distinctive value of their personal brand.
In the context of artists’ fundamentally personal ambitions, “the trope of anonymous teamwork” can “seem wildly radical,” Davis observes in “Collective Delusions,” though such working conditions are routine for nearly everyone else. Mistaking the achievement of collective purpose as the accomplishment of collective aims, artists arriving at the scene of activism promulgate a politics of “carnivalesque street parties” in which participation is sufficient as a goal. But carnivals are the tolerated states of exception that support the ordinary operation of power. As Davis puts it, artists’ eagerness for “temporary autonomous zones” is a “perfect recipe for displacing the goal of struggle from enduring material change that could benefit large numbers of people to a spectacle that is purely for the amusement of those who take part.” In other words, artists turn protest into an aestheticized experiential good, something consumed by individuals who can then disaggregate from the collective with a distinctive, treasurable memory.
According to Davis, the artists’ class interest “involves defining creativity as professional self-expression, which therefore restricts it to creative experts”—the artists. Contemporary visual art, then, is a “a specific creative discipline that arrogates to itself the status of representing ‘creativity’ in general.” Rather than being a common property developed by the “general intellect” of workers in collaboration and social interaction, creativity becomes the intellectual property of certified artists alone, who, for their livelihood, administer it for the rest of society. That is, “real” creativity becomes the preserve of a specially trained elite rather than the evolutionary inheritance of the entire human species.
Whether or not it correlates to distinctions in talent, this distinction between the fake creativity of ordinary people working in common and the certified creativity of appointed artists working alone or atop a hierarchy allows those artists to make “artworks” with a value on the market. The point is to give only artists a true property stake in their creative activity—only their creative work has inherent value. Everyone else’s creative effort is just plain old “labor,” which is worthless until purchased by capital. Limiting authentic creativity to proven professional artists makes creativity both aspirational (it models how nonartists should structure their leisure) and vicariously accessible (nonartists can absorb creativity through awed exposure to properly certified art objects). It is thus that artists “represent creativity tailored to capitalist specifications.” Artists become the designated exemplars of the form liberty can take under an economic system that prizes innovation and glorifies ideologically the dignity of the small proprietor. Though Davis recognizes this, he also tries to give it a dialectical spin, arguing that the artists’ model of freedom demonstrates what autonomy looks like and why it might be worth struggling for.
But because artists are celebrated by capital for their seeming independence from it, they are liable to become confused about the social role they play. They think being above wage labor gives them automatic solidarity with those who want to abolish it. They think they are fellow travelers when really they are running dogs.
Artists make the satisfying feeling of being an artist as much as they make discrete artworks. Typical art-world consumers, however, are not interested in the freedom art might signify. They want something to invest in and something that sets them apart. The trade in art objects is mainly about updating the prestige scoreboard (and property values) in the rarefied “art world” of multimillionaire collectors, gallery owners, museum trustees, and artists becoming brands. The structure of the entire art milieu is meant to forestall the broader appreciation of art and protect its capability to signify status. It is meant to allow rich people to recognize the fruits of their wealth in their exclusive access to the world’s finest things. The glory of the view lies primarily in its being private-access. Ordinary people’s appreciation of art attaches to works like so many barnacles, ruining their meaning for collectors. As with any luxury brand, the wrong sort of audience for an artist can sully their market value completely.
This is why so much of the discourse that surrounds contemporary art is so nauseating. It deliberately aims to destroy the confidence of nonelite audiences in their own judgment; it wants to make their potential pleasure in art depend on a recognition of their exclusion from the realm of art-making. We get the joy of knowing there’s some consumption experience beyond us that can remain forever aspirational, which gives us cause to cherish whatever brief peeks we get over the wall.
Market ratification affirms an artist’s ambition, which in turn feeds the market and the constitutive power of its major players. Art can’t break the grip of the market without also breaking artists’ determination to exist as a class apart. It is no surprise, then, that artists are largely disinclined to think about class. Helping them in their studied ignorance is the reified notion of the “art world,” which Davis contends is a convenient obfuscation that allows participants and aspirants to disavow their collusion with contemporary capitalism’s structural inequalities of status and access. “The notion of an ‘art world’ implies a sphere that is separate or set aside from the issues of the non–art world (and so separates it from class issues outside that sphere).” Artists have pure intentions, yet their collective activities would seem to destroy all possible optimism about whether creative expression can really be everyone’s lifework. “Visual art still holds the allure of being basically a middle-class field, where personal agency and professional ambition overlap,” Davis insists, but he points out sadly in his introduction that “year after year” the contemporary art world “chews up and spits out idealistic people, leaving them disgusted and heartsick.”
The same could be said of the world of literary journals, creative writing, and the “intellectual milieu” in general; each serves as a catch basin for those eager to transcend the ordinary economic relations that largely determine the lives of ordinary people. Often fueled by inherited privilege and a nurtured sense of entitlement, the up-and-coming cadres of the “creative class” seek ways to transform their yearning to be extraordinary into a career, and if that fails, into a politics based mainly on the demand for lucrative self-expression. All the while they imagine themselves exemplars of unsullied, disinterested aesthetic aspiration.
Given that artists’ status hinges on mystified creativity, they tend to overrate its transcendental significance. When “committed art practice” acts as a “substitute for the simple act of being politically involved, as an organizer and activist,” the focus shifts from economic injustice to liberating personal expression, as though capitalist society has some interest in suppressing it. Even Davis himself falls into this line of thinking: “Insofar as contemporary society thwarts or distorts self-expression,” he claims, “the urge to follow one’s own creative path can itself be a political impulse.”
But consumer capitalism is eager to harness the creative impulses of everyone. It virtually compels self-expression by allowing even the most mundane acts of consumption to become signifying lifestyle choices. (Is your kale organic? etc.) And the elaboration of communications technology has made our expression itself a lucrative product that we make for free and pay to consume the spectacle of its distribution. Telecoms and social-media companies would like nothing more than for us to express ourselves as much as possible. If anything, the problem is that capitalism makes self-expression seem more important than other more cooperative forms of social engagement, a condition that Davis seems to want to condemn. He points out how visual artists often epitomize the aloof pleasures of self-expression, flouting convention and embracing individualistic selfishness over consideration and community-building. Graffiti art is Davis’s paradigmatic example, “one of the essential artistic products of the neoliberal period.”
No matter how subversive the content of such art becomes, it never ceases to support capitalist hegemony. Artists provide concrete evidence that capitalism nurtures autonomous “creativity” and tolerates even the most intemperate of its countercultural excesses, while it actually siphons the creative energies of nonartists into valorizing consumer goods, putting them to innovative use in expressing identity.
But there is nothing inherently uncreative about consumerism: Shopping on Etsy is arguably just as creative and pleasurable as making crafts for Etsy, tapping the same impulses to recognize and prize distinctiveness.
For those to whom the creative-class habitus is entirely alien, consumer capitalism opens up otherwise inaccessible opportunities for self-expression, making participation in it genuinely expressive and satisfying. As consumers use goods to convey personal identity, they simultaneously enrich the signifying potential of material culture for everyone, strengthening consumerism’s appeal as social communication and quasi-artistic expression. Social media intensify this, providing a low-barrier platform for people to disseminate their consumer behavior and track the response it gets, while absorbing the influence of their peers. But the artist’s interest rests in ideologically subordinating such pleasures to the glories of professional art, thereby protecting the art world’s monopoly on prestige.
Davis waffles on this a bit, in part because these essays were written over a span of several years but also because he wants contradictory things. He seeks to protect the possibility of an idealized social function for art in the face of capitalist realities that deny it. He sees artists’ class position as causing them ideological problems but thinks the art they make might still be immune. Even as he convincingly argues that there are “different class-based notions of creative labor” and that “one must judge art in terms of the contradictory values given to it by competing class interests,” he is ready nonetheless to tout a universal ideal of “creative expression” and assert that art has some objective value that could be deduced in the abstract, independent of the class struggle that everywhere else determines the relative value of human effort.
But it’s impossible to say artworks are “great” without also implying that those who can see that objective greatness are in a superior aesthetic position to those preoccupied with consumer junk. In wanting to preserve the traditional transcendental quality of art, Davis is arguing for the very same rarefied aura that critics and collectors and museums and art schools and all the other art-world institutions have always counted on and used as an alibi.
Far from working arm-in-arm with workers to liberate them from the forces the restrict their expression, artists are more likely to work to protect that aura and intensify the qualms ordinary people might have about thinking of their activities as art. Creativity must be held apart from consumerism, protected in the hands of a particular elite with the appropriate training to keep expression “authentically meaningful” rather than commercial. At the same time, authentic art production must be left in the hands of the professionals, who have been endowed with unique talent and have made a series of special sacrifices to develop their artistic gift. Ordinary people are endowed only with the ability to consume, and while they may think that’s creative, they’re kidding themselves.
Part of the problem with artists as cultural role models is that they authorize a general devaluing of labor by making it seem as though “creativity” is its own reward. In “Art and Class,” Davis notes that “the term ‘artist’ has connotations of freedom and personal satisfaction that can be used to obscure real relationships of exploitation when it is overgeneralized to apply to any type of labor that is deemed remotely creative.” This logic is used to justify unpaid internships and measly salaries in the so-called glamour industries. But that justification hinges on the idea that culturally recognized opportunities to be creative are scarce. It’s not that too many people are labeled artists then expected to work for less, as Davis suggests, but that not enough people recognize the artistry in what they are already doing and live with a sense of social inferiority and self-doubt. If they are to protect their own cultural capital, professional artists (and curators and critics) must endorse the standards that pronounce some people as uncreative.
“Creative expression needs to be redefined,” Davis declares in the title essay. “It should not be thought of as a privilege but a basic human need … it should be treated as a right to which everyone is entitled.” But creative expression is neither a privilege or a need but an inherent characteristic of human endeavor. It is not something decreed by fiat.
Yet Davis seems to think that while “we are all creative people,” some people’s creativity is more “interesting” than others, and this warrants the elaboration of culture-wide social practices for separating the divinely inspired from the dullards. He implicitly dismisses the view that everyone’s activity can be legitimately “artistic” as so much autonomist wishful thinking, scorning “Hardt and his co-thinkers” for claiming that “the entire proletariat has been aestheticized.” In disputing artist Joseph Beuys’s notion that “everyone is an artist,” Davis refers fatalistically to the scarcity of social approval, as though the uneven distribution of social recognition couldn’t be made a political target, as though social media hasn’t proved that a vast and growing economy of approval can’t be technologically called into being. “Universal consumerism has indeed augmented the creative instruments at the disposal of the average person,” Davis concedes in “Beneath Street Art, the Beach,” “but this potential is not matched by opportunities within the sphere of official culture for people to realize themselves as professional creative individuals.”
Who cares about the sanctity of the “official culture,” which has a class-based interest in restricting that endorsement to a select few? The opportunities it provides and the self-realization that might stem from them are already poisoned from a political point of view. Davis won’t surrender the idea that “official approval matters” and that there is an objective basis for determining “legitimate self-expression.” Such official approval may matter to professional artists, because it is the source of their livelihood, and Davis seems eager to defend the right of a select few to make a living through art. To the rest of us, it is the stifling source of delegitimization. It is a reminder of the concrete reality of that solipsistic, insidery “art world” that Davis is otherwise so eager to see dismantled. Shouldn’t those excluded from the official art world create their own opportunities, according to their own communal standards, pitting their values against those of the official culture, and the social order that supports it, if necessary? Shouldn’t they destroy art to save it?
In “Crisis and Criticism” Davis admits a personal motive for his own faith in art’s transcendence: “I have to believe that some theory about art’s purpose is important—without a seriously argued perspective on what makes visual art distinctive, all you have left is the art world as a crappy arm of pop culture or a place for high-end gambling.” Those descriptions don’t seem wrong (nor do they seem mutually exclusive), and Davis’s determination to not to accept them simply to preserve critics’ and artists’ dignity seems a thin veneer.
Art’s higher purpose becomes an origin myth that holds out the promise that eventually the art world that destroys so many idealists will ultimately be redeemed. In “The Agony of the Interloper,” an essay about “outsider art,” Davis argues that the “institutions of art, like all institutions in an unequal society, are warped by their context.” But an ongoing unequal context is what brought these institutions into being. Their express purpose is to rule on who belongs and who doesn’t based on social position. There never have been any unwarped art institutions; they are warped by design. Does Davis really believe that art institutions once served some pure notion of art and then somehow got corrupted? Whose ideal of purity would have been upheld?
Similarly, in a postscript to his essay “White Walls, Glass Ceilings,” Davis urges we fight for “a world where art’s value escapes the deformities imposed upon it by an unequal society.” Davis wants there to be generalized social practices that can certify art’s value without somehow stratifying a society in which art has economic value. Yet if artistic ability is unequally distributed by nature, that fact alone will generate an unequal society as long as art is singled out for special cultural significance. Art is so complicit in structuring cultural hierarchies, it makes more sense to argue that art’s value never precedes the existence of those deformities and to agitate for a world where art is granted no alienable “value” at all.
In the collection’s last paragraph, Davis comes around to something like this position, that from the perspective of a future communist society, the idea that “great art was something rare and precious, a triumph that had to be scratched out against all odds, a privilege that needed to be defended with boundless righteousness and walled off in its own specific professional sphere will likely seem strange.” There is no reason to regard it as less than strange now. We can start by rejecting the need to identify “great” art and the class victors it nominates. When art is finally worthless, it will be free for everyone to make and enjoy.