My chemical warmance

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The last days of mankind

Act III
Scene 45-A
Karl Kraus

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(The Begrudger and Optimist in conversation.)

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BEGRUDGER:
In the past war was a tournament for the few who had power. Now it’s an industrial-armaments-driven threat to the entire world.

OPTIMIST: The development of armaments can’t possibly be allowed to lag behind the technological advances of the modern age.

BEGRUDGER: No, but the modern age has allowed mankind’s imagination to lag behind his technological advances.

OPTIMIST: I see. So wars are fought with the imagination?

BEGRUDGER: With imagination nobody would fight them.

OPTIMIST: Why not?

BEGRUDGER: Because then the exhortations of a mentally retarded doublespeak, born of a decrepit ideal, would have no scope to befuddle people’s brains; because then we would be able to imagine the most unimaginable horrors and would know beforehand how short a step it is from all the gaudy phrases and rapturous flag-waving to the field gray of despair; because the prospect of dying of dysentery for the fatherland, or losing both feet to frostbite, would no longer mobilize maudlin pathos; because at least a soldier could march away to war with the certain knowledge that he would become lice-infested for the fatherland. Because we would know that mankind has invented the machinery of war only to be overpowered by it, and because we would not eclipse the madness of that invention with the even greater madness of letting ourselves be killed by it. With imagination we would know that it is a crime to expose our lives to misfortune, a sin to reduce death to a lottery, that it is an act of folly to manufacture battleships when torpedo boats are built to outwit them, to make mortars when trenches are dug to ward them off, and folly to drive mankind into rat holes to escape his own weapons, so that peace can only be enjoyed in an underground world henceforth. With imagination to replace the media, technology would not be the source of life’s afflictions and science would not seek life’s destruction. Heroic death hovers in clouds of gas and our traumas are measured in a newspaper’s column inches! Forty thousand Russian corpses, enraptured by barbed wire, could only make an item in the late edition, to be read out to the dregs of humanity by a soubrette in the interval of an operetta cobbled together from those words of self-sacrificial weaponmongery, “I Gave Gold for Iron,” just so that the librettist could make a curtain call. Never was there a greater display of a paucity of community spirit than now. Never was Lilliputian pettiness on a more epic scale the makeup of our world. Reality is reduced to the dimensions of a newspaper report, panting as it struggles to keep up with reality. The journalist whose columns confuse the facts with his own fantasies stands in the way of those facts and makes them more fantastical. And so sinister are the machinations of the press and its agents that I find myself almost believing that every one of those miserable specimens who afflicts our ears with inescapable and interminable shouts of “Extra! Special Edition!” — is responsible for instigating a universal catastrophe. The printed word has empowered a vacuous humanity to commit atrocities that its own imagination can no longer comprehend, and the curse of mass circulation returns those atrocities to a media that generates ever-regenerative evil.[2] Everything that happens, happens to those who describe it but have never experienced it. A spy, led to the gallows, walks the long way round to provide the newsreel camera with engaging scenery; he has to stare into that camera for another take to ensure his facial expression satisfies the audience. Don’t let me follow this train of thought as far as mankind’s own gallows — but I have to, I am its condemned spy, heartsick from the horror of the void this tide of events reveals not only in men’s souls but even in their cameras!

OPTIMIST: Unpleasantness is the inevitable concomitant of great things. Maybe it’s possible the world didn’t change on the night of the 1st of August 1914. However, it seems very clear that imagination does not feature among the human qualities war finds useful. But if I understand you right, don’t you deny that modern war has any room for human qualities anyway?

BEGRUDGER: You do understand me right; it allows no room for them at all, because the reality of modern warfare can only exist by virtue of the negation of any human qualities whatsoever. And there are none left.

OPTIMIST: So what is left?

BEGRUDGER: There is human quantity, numbers, human quantities that are evenly depleting themselves as they seek to prove that they can’t compete with quantities of mechanical firepower which are utterly revolutionary in nature; because even mortars can overwhelm humanity en masse. Mustering the evidence, it is the lack of imagination alone that makes possible, inevitable, what remains of mankind’s machine-power revolution.

OPTIMIST: If the quantity of people is evenly depleted, when does it end?

BEGRUDGER: When the two lions are left with nothing but their tails. Or if, by some miracle, that doesn’t happen: till, in terms of sheer numbers, the larger party is left with the advantage. I shudder at having to hope for that. I shudder even more at the terrifying prospect of ideals-to-die-for triumphing. Continue reading

Khidekel and the cosmist legacy of suprematism in architecture

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The following is a brief extract from an interview Elena Dobriakova conducted with Regina Khidekel, the daughter-in-law of the great suprematist painter and speculative architect Lazar Khidekel. It touches on the subject of Russian cosmism, a philosophical current which has become a renewed topic of interest thanks to George Young’s new book on The Russian Cosmists, as well as some of the materials published on e-flux by Benedict Singleton and Anton Vidokle.

Following this extract there is a short article by Regina Khidekel on suprematism in architecture. See also a post by Martin Gittins as well as Enrique Ramirez’s work on cosmism and flight in modern architecture, “Rocket Talk.” The interview translation is my own, but feel free to reproduce it. Click on any of the images below to see them in higher resolution.
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Khidekel and cities of the future

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Elena Dobriakova:
 How has suprematism withstood such a serious test of time, in your opinion?

Regina Khidekel: When the founder of suprematism Kazimir Malevich arrived at this Black Square, he soon understood that suprematism — or, that is to say, geometric abstraction — is the terminal stage of abstract art, that this art that is connected with the cosmos, with cosmic vision. The plain fact of the matter, technically speaking, is that Malevich grasped the property of this new space when, according to the story, it escaped beyond the horizon. In this fashion, the laws of linear perspective for were repealed, and before the artist opened an immeasurable expanse, which then became the space of the suprematist painting and, as Lazar Khidekel phrased it, the infinite plane of the canvas. That’s why in the early stages of suprematism the forms fly into the unknown of cosmic space. This is to speak only of the formal aspect. After this came the further development of suprematism, which Malevich saw as the creation of modern architecture. The students of Malevich sought to introduce this art to the limits of life during the early 1920s — and above all Khidekel, who was to Malevich the most active, energetic, and congenial. Chashnik called Khidekel a revolutionary suprematist as early as 1921, meaning a “real, genuine suprematist.” And Khidekel introduced suprematism into architecture, not as a utilitarian, elementary style, but as revolutionary-innovative vision.

For Malevich’s students, including Lazar Khidekel, these forms have been converted into space stations. Structures and volumes were perceived by them as the cosmic dwellings of future earthlings. This is another story: that of Russian cosmism and its mystical philosophy of the “common cause,” capable of uniting mankind in the task of overcoming death and resurrecting our forefathers, for whom these space colonies were designed. By the way, this was the motive behind Tsiolkovskii’s scientific research.

Елена Добрякова: Каким образом супрематизм, по вашему мнению, выдержал столь серьезную проверку временем?

Регина Хидекель: Когда основоположнику супрематизма Казимиру Малевичу пришел этот черный квадрат, он очень скоро понял, что супрематизм, или, иначе, геометрическая абстракция, и есть последняя стадия абстрактного искусства, что это искусство связано с космосом, с космическим видением. Дело в том, что чисто технически Малевич осознал свойство этого нового пространства, когда, по его словам, вышел за линию горизонта. Таким образом, законы итальянской перспективы были отменены, и перед художником открылся безмерный космос, который стал пространством супрематической живописи и, как сформулировал для себя Лазарь Хидекель, бесконечной плоскостью полотна. Вот почему на первой стадии супрематизма формы летают в безвесии в космическом пространстве. Это если говорить о формальной стороне. Затем последовало развитие супрематизма, которое Малевич видел в создании современной архитектуры. Студенты Малевича, и в первую очередь Лазарь Хидекель как самый активный, деятельный, конгениальный Малевичу, в начале 1920-х годов стремился ввести это искусство в пределы жизни. Чашник еще в 1921 году называет Хидекеля революционным супрематистом, что означает «подлинный, настоящий супрематист». И Хидекель ввел супрематизм в архитектуру, не утилитарной составляющей стиля, а революционно-новаторским видением.

Ученики Малевича, в том числе и Лазарь Хидекель, стали эти формы превращать в космические станции. Структуры и объемы воспринимаются ими как космические жилища будущих землян. Это отдельная тема — русский космизм и его мистическая философия общего дела, способная объединить человечество для решения задач преодоления смерти и воскрешения наших предков, для которых и проектировались эти космические колонии. Кстати, это было побудительным мотивом и для научных разработок Циолковского.

Lazar Khidekel:
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The trajectory of suprematism;
between sky and earth

Regina Khidekel

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The cosmic “gene” of Suprematism, the philosophy of Russian Cosmism in Malevich’s interpretation and his cosmological concepts, fell on fertile ground. The adolescent, who, by his own account, “walked the streets late at night, staring at the sky, the moon, and the clouds waiting for the coming of the Messiah, who…appeared floating in the clouds of the dark sky,”[1] soon encountered the art of his first teacher, Marc Chagall, where the flight over the city and the life on the roofs perfectly accorded with the Vitebsk reality.

From the Chagallian metaphorical ascent over side streets familiar from childhood, he was already within arm’s length of the systematized flights into the endless limits of Suprematist space. Malevich’s destruction of Renaissance perspective and the horizon line led to the revelation of another space — that of the boundless cosmos, which became the space onto which Lazar Khidekel would project his Suprematist compositions. Continue reading

Not art but communism

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Early in 1921 the Soviet Commissar of Enlightenment Anatolii Lunacharskii nominated the young avant-garde artist El Lissitzky to serve as the USSR’s cultural ambassador to the West. At the time, the civil war in Russia was still waging, but the end was in sight. Narkompros, the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment, was ordered by Lenin to prepare to make cultural inroads in Western Europe, where revolution had stalled out but might yet be reignited. When David Shterenberg, the director of IZO (Narkompros’ Fine Arts Department), accused Lissitzky of cynically using the funded trip to Germany and the Netherlands as simply a way to promote UNOVIS, the artistic group to which he belonged at the time, the artist immediately shot back:

We are taking not art but communism to the West.

Despite the reservations expressed by art historians such as Victor Margolin, Margaret Tupitsyn, and Henk Puts about the political intent of Lissitzky’s mission, the late Detlef Mertins uncovered evidence a couple years ago that this indeed was the case. On the surface of things, of course, this statement by Lissitzky seems startlingly naïve. How could revolutionary form automatically convey revolutionary content?

Could an abstract shape (think of Beat the White Circle with the Red Wedge) really communicate a communist message? Fredric Jameson once remarked, in his 1992 lectures on The Seeds of Time, that “[i]t was one of the signal errors of the artistic activism of the 1960s to suppose that there existed, in advance, forms that were in and of themselves endowed with a political, and even revolutionary, potential by virtue of their own intrinsic properties.” The same charge might be made against the 1920s, of course, leveled against the artistic and cultural avant-garde of that era. I should like to propose another option.

Perhaps it was not just delusional exuberance or an overactive imagination that led them to make such rash claims for themselves, but rather in that moment revolutionary form and revolutionary content appeared to have merged. Or at least, things seemed to be approaching this point. Lissitzky and Ehrenberg, in their otherwise apolitical article appended below, on the end of the Western naval blockade against the fledgling Soviet Union, said as much when they wrote that “we are unable to imagine any creation of new forms in art that is not linked to the transformation of social forms.” The two appeared indissolubly interconnected. Afterward, of course, revolutionary forms of art would be banished from most of Western Europe by fascism and from the Soviet Union by Stalinism. It flew across the ocean to Chicago and New York, where the United States was rapidly in the process of becoming a global superpower. Nevertheless, nothing like the revolutionary social content prevailed in the US, and in the USSR, where this revolutionary social content was still present, revolutionary forms of art were absent. The two had become decoupled.

I’d like to thank Aleksandr Strugach for bringing these fabulous images to my attention, and the Petersburg architecture blogger and historian Sergei Babushkin for posting them. You can access his blog by clicking here, and I hope you’ll forgive this brief meditation on my part. Check out posts on PROUN and Lissitzky’s design for a yacht club also. Enjoy!

The blockade of Russia is coming to an end

El Lissitzky
Ilya Ehrenberg
Veshch (1922)

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The appearance of Objet is another sign that the exchange of practical knowledge, realizations, and “objects” between young Russian and West European artists has begun. Seven years of separate existence have shown that the common ground of artistic aims and undertakings that exists in various countries is not simply an effect of chance, a dogma, or a passing fashion, but an inevitable accompaniment of the maturing of humanity. Art is today international, though retaining all its local symptoms and particularities. The founders of the new artistic community are strengthening ties between Russia, in the aftermath of the mighty Revolution, and the West, in its wretched postwar Black Monday frame of mind; in so doing they are bypassing all artistic distinctions whether psychological, economic, or racial. Objet is the meeting point of two adjacent lines of communication.

We stand at the outset of a great creative period. Obviously reaction and bourgeois obstinacy remain strong enough on all sides in Europe as well as in disoriented Russia. But all the energy of those who cling to the past can only, at the very most, delay the process of constructing new forms of existence and communal work. The days of destroying, laying siege, and undermining lie behind us. That is why Objet will devote the least possible amount of space to combating the epigones of the academy. The negative tactics of the “dadaists,” who are as like the first futurists of the prewar period as two peas in a pod, appear anachronistic to us. Continue reading

All that exists deserves to perish

Against the Proudhonian
popery of Père Naphtha

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Père Naphtha is a delightful contradiction: a self-identified papist with pretensions to Marxism. Specifically, he belongs to the Maoist/Stalinist persuasion. It’s possible that he, like Roland Boer, thinks his religiosity adds some sort of unexpected “twist” or nuance to his otherwise pedestrian “heartthrob for the welfare of humanity,” to quote Hegel. Recently his tempers have been roused by the controversy over Mark Fisher’s “Vampires’ Castle” article and identity politics on the Left, and by the flurry of responses (some okay, most bad) that issued from it. He has thus seen fit to pen his own reply “On Identitarianism: A Defense of a Strawman.”

Though it’s probably poor form to dismiss an entire article and its argument out of hand, in one sweeping gesture, I feel confident in characterizing Naphtha’s “response” as basically an excuse to bang on about Nietzsche‘s pernicious influence on the Left. Obviously, this has been getting a lot of play lately, with Malcolm Bull‘s book Anti-Nietzsche having come out recently, followed by a long and seemingly interminable debate on Doug Henwood’s wall about the (un)salvageability of Nietzsche, which has since been reprised several times in other contexts. Evidently Père Naphtha had a horse in the race here, though the main knight tilting at the Antichrist was Harrison Fluss, an Hegelian and HM groupie. (Fluss is, for the record, a far more worthy opponent than Naphtha in this debate). For Naphtha, the true problem plaguing the Left is not identity politics, as authors such as Fisher, Dean, and Rectenwald believe, but rather the ominous silhouette lurking behind their haughty denunciation of ressentiment: Friedrich Nietzsche.

If for nothing else, however, we should thank Père Naphtha for proffering yet more proof of Nietzsche’s suspicion that most self-proclaimed socialists are in fact Christians in disguise. As if any more proof was needed given the maudlin, moralizing sentimentality of most leftists today. Naphtha’s brand of anti-Nietzscheanism seems to be lifted from the standard Stalinist sources: Georg Lukács and Domenico Losurdo.

Continuing our narrative: In the comment thread below his article, Naphtha took exception to the harsh rhetoric I slung his way, describing his own position as “an egalitarian argument against elitism.” Nietzsche was anti-egalitarian, to be sure, and anti-moralistic. Most pointedly so in his polemics against those famous anti-semites who were for him exemplars of socialism: Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (also by extension, the 1848 Proudhonist Richard Wagner), Bakunin, and Eugen Dühring. Continue reading

The politics of work

Platypus Review
December 2013
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Robert Pollin, Stanley Aronowitz, Jason Wright

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On September 20 2013, the Platypus Affiliated Society organized a panel discussion entitled The Politics of Work for the Rethinking Marxism conference at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The discussion was moderated by Reid Kotlas of Platypus. The panelists were asked to respond to a prompt of ten questions that included provocative quotations by Joan Robinson, Fredric Jameson, and André Gorz. This prompt asked each panelist to consider the adequacy of the Left’s historic and ongoing attempts to understand and transform social relations of work and unemployment.

What follows is the edited version of the ensuing conversation. A full recording of the event is available online.
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Capital is not a book about politics, and not even a book about labour: it is a book about unemployment.

— Fredric Jameson, Representing
Capital: A Reading of Volume One

The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.

— Joan Robinson

The error consists in believing that labor, by which I mean heteronomous, salaried labor, can and must remain the essential matter. It’s just not so. According to American projections, within twenty years labor time will be less than half that of leisure time. I see the task of the left as directing and promoting this process of abolition of labor in a way that will not result in a mass of unemployed on one side, and aristocracy of labor on the other and between them a proletariat which carries out the most distasteful jobs for forty-five hours a week. Instead, let everyone work much less for his salary and thus be free to act in a much more autonomous manner.…Today “communism” is a real possibility and even a realistic proposition, for the abolition of salaried labor through automation saps both capitalist logic and the market economy.

— André Gorz

Opening remarks

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Robert Pollin:
 Since we are a Marxist conference I’m going to start with Karl Marx. I love the quote from Jameson, which I had never seen before: “Capital is not a book about politics, and not even a book about labor: it is a book about unemployment.” I think there is a profound truth to that. Not only is chapter 25 of volume 1 about the reserve army of labor and, as far as I know, the first serious analysis of unemployment as a phenomenon, of the necessity for massive unemployment to exist in order for capitalism to function; but also, the arguments Marx makes in chapter 25 are not the only place in which he is talking about unemployment, which is why I love the Jameson quote. That chapter links up with the entire theory of the labor theory of value and extraction of surplus from labor because, in a full employment economy (in the absence of mass unemployment) the working class has more political power, which of course is what Marx explains. When the working class has more political power and has the capacity to bargain up their wages, that means their rate of surplus value declines. You could think of that as offering a fundamental challenge to the prerogatives of capital and its ability to extract surplus from workers. So Marx was the first great theorist of unemployment. Whether the whole book is about unemployment, as Jameson says, is a debate, but Jameson is certainly making a deep point, maybe the deepest insight in the whole of Capital.

If we take the great theorists of unemployment, we go from Marx, certainly, to Keynes. Keynes’ view on unemployment was, very briefly, that this is a solvable problem within capitalism and we need to understand the technical means to control aggregate demand and instability in the investment process due to the power of Wall Street and speculation. Once we can control those, we can tame worst excesses of capital, we can increase public investment and as such, we can organize capitalism around the idea of full employment. So that is obviously a direct challenge to Marx’s notion that unemployment is fundamental to the operations of capitalism. Continue reading

Color and light in modern architecture

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In 1929, the Soviet avant-garde journal Modern Architecture (Современная архитектура, or СА) published a special issue devoted to color and light in design. Below is an embedded link to the full issue on Scribd, as well as some lower-quality scans of individual pages. More later. Enjoy these for now.

Paintings by Song Wenzhi, 1972-1975

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The following scenes were painted by the Chinese artist Song Wenzhi during the 1970s. I find these much more interesting than the rather derivative Socialist Realist style that predominated from the 1950s-1970s. Superficially, at least (I’m no expert in East Asian art), these would seem to use non-realist “traditional” forms to depict quintessentially modern content. Technoindustrial alterations to the landscape are part of the landscape.

As I wrote in response to someone who felt the representation of industrial imagery “polluted” the purity of the traditional genre of Chinese landscape paining, there’s an ironic fidelity to Wenzhi’s paintings to this tradition. By this I mean that traditional Chinese landscape paintings often did include scattered human artifacts — bridges, huts, sometimes tiny people — embedded in the scenery. So it’s not as if humanity’s intervention into nature is wholly absent from such paintings. In the paintings of Wenzhi, however, the scale of these manmade structures, especially those involved in or facilitated by industrialization, is obviously much larger. On a whole different scale, one might say. Even then, these are integrated into the landscape.

Traditional Chinese landscape painting featuring small human artifacts

Traditional Chinese landscape painting featuring small human artifacts

However, I wouldn’t say that this is simply a continuation of tradition. Wenzhi was doubtless aware that a qualitative difference had resulted from this quantitative increase. Continue reading

Hong Kong high-rise

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So lately I’ve been getting into some of the photography and writing that’s been done on Hong Kong, just off mainland China. I know it’s still nominally autonomous, but it’s been moving toward full integration for some time now. Last I checked it was still considered a “special administrative” zone within China proper.

Anyway, the only exposure I’d really had to Hong Kong had come through television and film. First through Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978) and then the “White Ghost” (1996) episode of the British police procedural Cracker. Both are great, by the way, so I’d highly encourage you to watch them if you have any interest. Recently, however, I came across the German photographer Michael Wolf’s Architecture of Density series (2013). These photographs depict the numerous, eerily colorful high-rises that crowd the skyline of Hong Kong.

You can see a number of them in very high resolution just by clicking on the small icons below. They’ve been assembled from various places around the internet, though the Tumblr blog Architecture of Doom probably deserves special mention.

It took me a while to figure out what made these images so striking. At first I surmised that it was because of the almost total lack of any visible human presence, which is somewhat ironic considering it’s a visual record human population density. The whole city should be (or should at least appear to be, since it in reality is) crawling with people.

But that’s not it. Part of it, no doubt, but not the whole story. Continue reading

Utopia, Ltd.: Constructivism reconstructed

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There’s a piece I wrote up going over the Utopia, Ltd. show that’s been posted on the Metropolis Magazine blog, titled “Reconstructivism.” If anyone reading this is in London, I’d encourage them to check it out. Looks great, and everyone who’s been to it has had only good things to say. You can read my own thoughts on the matter by clicking the linked article above.

Paul Prudence, a photographer living in London, was the one who first got in touch with me about it. So he deserves some credit for alerting my attention, and major props on the photos he took of the models at the exhibit (shown below). I’m also grateful to Sammy Medina — Metropolis’ web editor — for looking it over and providing me with the interview materials sent in by the model-maker, Henry Milner, and the lead curator, Elena Sudakova.

All photos here were taken by Paul Prudence.

Art and politics in class society

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Book review:

Ben Davis, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class (Haymarket. Chicago, IL: 2013)

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The following review was originally published by the CUNY Grad Center’s journal The Advocate. It is available in print and online, and I’d encourage anyone who’s interested to pick up a copy.

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Ben Davis’ 9.5 Theses on Art and Class has clearly struck a chord with contemporary artistic communities, critics and practitioners alike. Not all have responded the same way, however. While most applaud the admirable clarity of its arguments and readily acknowledge Davis’ gifts as a writer, some have lamented the book’s “rather bleak” tone and the seeming despondency of its conclusions. One review went so far as to accuse Davis of drawing “lazy caricatures” of his opponents, panning Art and Class as “crudely reductive” and given to “smug, self-righteous dismissals.” Yet others have welcomed its challenge to the conventional image of artists as born radicals, and praise Davis’ sober reassessment of the lofty political ambitions often claimed for their work.

Despite a few cautious endorsements from figures like Molly Crabapple and William Powhida, the book’s reception among actual producers of art has likewise been mixed. At a recent talk held at Housing Works in downtown Manhattan, Davis invited to the stage a group of practicing artists with whom he’d been in close dialogue while writing Art and Class. The discussion that followed was polite enough, touching on some of the book’s central themes, but there were moments in which the panelists could be seen practically squirming with discomfort at the language Davis used to characterize their vocation. Even though they’d all read it before, and were thus familiar with the text’s provocations, it was as if the wound was still fresh.

So what is it about Davis’ thesis that makes it such a bitter pill to swallow? Part of it is semantic. Though the sociological framework he employs throughout his investigation into art under capitalism is generally sound, Davis encounters terminological difficulties as soon as he tries to conceptualize class. How does one talk about a mode of creative activity that doesn’t neatly fit the division of society into workers and capitalists? What accounts for this peculiar survival of quasi-artisanal forms of labor within such a rarefied commercial sphere as today’s art market? Art and Class approaches these questions from an avowedly Marxist angle. But this presents problems of another sort. For although classical Marxism had at its disposal an arsenal of readymade categories with which to comprehend the position of the artist, Davis finds terms like “petit-bourgeois” (probably the most fitting designation for artists at one time) irretrievably démodé. Looking for a more accessible word that might replace it, he arrives at “middle-class.” Davis emphatically asserts that “the contemporary artist is the representative of middle-class creative labor par excellence.”1

This nomenclature is unfortunate for a whole host of reasons, not least of which is the confusing cluster of connotations that already surrounds notions of “middle-class.” Class is commonly (mis)understood as a purely quantitative relation, a function of “pay scale” or “income bracket.” As Davis points out, this distorts the more precise definition offered by Marxist theory, which sees class as a specific relationship to the means of production — namely of ownership or non-ownership, combined with some owners’ ability to hire others to operate them. Beyond such bland technicalities, however, Davis anticipates a more basic objection artists might raise to his analysis. “The issue of class has moral overtones,” he recognizes.2 Artists, who tend to sympathize with vaguely leftist political ideas and issues of social justice, bristle at the suggestion that they are somehow “middle-class.”

Gustav Klutsis, Multilingual propaganda machine (1923)

Once one gets past this initial allergic response, and accepts the meaning assigned to “middle-class,” the rest of the book’s contentions about art in class society fall into place. Davis is hardly indifferent to artists’ plight, either. Quite the opposite: the narrative he unfolds in Art and Class has profound implications for the way artists orient their politics. “The upshot is that artists’ middle-class position is not merely a limit on their relation to larger social struggle but also on their ability to organize to transform their own conditions,” Davis writes. He goes over some of the efforts to orchestrate artists’ strikes in the 1960s and 1970s, virtually none of which could be considered a success. “From whom would the artists be withholding their art if they did go on strike?” the book asks, quoting Carl Andre. “Alas, from no one but themselves.”3 By contrast, the closer artists get to wage-labor — those instances where they actually constitute a paid workforce, as with studio animators or industrial designers — the more effectively they can unionize and leverage demands. Continue reading