Art and politics in class society

Book review:

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


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.

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