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.

Indeed, the strongest essays in Art and Class are those that border most on sociology. “Art and Inequality” examines the positive correlation between art booms and increasing wealth disparity,4 while “White Walls, Glass Ceiling” traces the reversal of gains made since the 1960s in the proportion of female artists in major galleries and museums.5 In “Hipster Aesthetics,” Davis advances a fairly plausible interpretation of the rise of faux-hemianism in the nineties and aughts alongside urban regeneration and gentrification. Reflecting on the recent spate of articles devoted to the phenomenon,6 he locates hipsterdom in the delayed maturation process some have called Generation Y’s “emerging adulthood.” Using simple statistics such as the rising average age of marriage, the number of years spent wandering aimlessly through higher-ed (the “perpetual student” who steadily accumulates degrees), and the indefinite postponement of looming career decisions, Davis explains hipster culture as the result of a kind of prolonged societal adolescence.7 At the end of the day, however, he has little patience for the invectives often hurled against this milieu. “[I]t is a waste to expel so much rhetorical ammo attacking what amounts to a style,” he shrugs.8

Next to these brief sociological surveys, the book’s best sections come in its casual takedowns of aesthetic theories by a number of well-known academics and intellectuals loosely affiliated with the Left. With almost journalistic ease, Davis demolishes their extravagant attempts to elevate the political status of art. Countering the common perception that the ascendance of leftish art critics and aestheticians today signals a reawakening of revolutionary consciousness, he writes:

In recent years, the art world’s trendy philosophies all suggest an interest in politics, rather than the semantic games and neologisms of classic deconstruction: the dilettantish political mysticism of Giorgio Agamben; the Maoist mathematics of Alain Badiou; the orotund autonomism of Antonio Negri; the gentleman’s anarchism of Jacques Rancière; the erratic musings of Slavoj Žižek…Yet do any of these figures offer anything resembling a clear, historically rooted response to today’s problems, any graspable alternative vision of social organization or political strategy? I would say no.9

Some have taken such polemics as just further proof of Davis’ “palpable disdain for the academy,” but in this respect Art and Class provides a sorely-needed dose of vulgar Marxism after decades of so-called “radical aesthetics.” Davis confronts Rancière, the chief protagonist of this discourse, in a piece pointedly titled “How Political are ‘Political Aesthetics’?” He faults the widely celebrated author of The Politics of Aesthetics for clumsily collapsing art and politics together. In the absence of a revolutionary social movement, usually seen as a prerequisite for revolutionary art, Rancière instead “redefines politics…in such a way that it completely sidesteps any non-artistic question.”10 Likewise, as part of his inquiry into “The Semi-Post-Postmodern Condition,” Davis reproaches Groys for consigning the present moment to a dreary kind of posthistoire, an irrelevant afterthought (i.e., “a post-political condition in which all art can do is endlessly preoccupy itself with humanity’s failure to realize a better future”).11

Besides academic tendencies that either warp politics beyond recognition or cursorily declare it to be over, Art and Class also takes issue with fashionable forms of ultraleftism that overvalue aesthetic praxis. Of the various theories that appeal to both art scenes and activist milieux at once, Davis discerns a “prominent type of Marxist-inflected art criticism… [that] actually identifies contemporary artists with the proletariat tout court” (Hardt). Against autonomist fantasies involving the supposed “immaterialization” of production — wherein the working class disappears into “the miasma of a nebulously conceived postindustrial economy” — he highlights the continuity between paycheck-based employment and salaried creative labor.12 Even critics who explicitly reject the notion of “immaterial labor” fall prey to many of the same mistakes.13 In “Collective Delusions,” one of his best ideology critiques, Davis addresses an essay by the British communisateurs Anthony Iles and Marina Vishmidt. Contrasting communization’s vision of social emancipation with that of older leftist groupings, Iles and Vishmidt propose “an aesthetic rather than a political view of the content of revolution.” They therefore advocate an approach patterned more after artistic collectives than traditional Marxist parties. Davis sneeringly remarks: “Just what exactly this ‘aesthetic revolution’ might look like or how artists working together might serve as a model for activism is left largely to the imagination.”14


Visible in this last quote, however, is the book’s one glaring weakness — its conflation of activism and politics. Of course, Davis is not alone in considering them more or less identical. For many who joined the antiwar movement of the mid-2000s, protest marches were the default mode of political participation. Much of Davis’ frustration with the self-important posturing of “radical” artists stems from this formative experience.

Early on in Art and Class, he recalls an exchange he had with an artist during this period. After conversing for a while about their shared opposition to the Iraq invasion, they each agreed to attend the next chapter meeting of the ANSWER coalition in New York. When the artist failed to show, Davis followed up only to find out that he’d spent his evening in front of an easel instead. The artist apparently informed him that “his painting…was his contribution to making the world a safer place.”15 Needless to say, Davis was nonplussed by this explanation. Wondering what might lead someone to supply such a dubious alibi, he decided to submit the very idea (or, more accurately, the ideology) of “aesthetic politics” to further scrutiny. Upon closer inspection, he concludes that “[a]s a critical trope, ‘aesthetic politics’ is more of an excuse not to be engaged in the difficult, ugly business of nonartistic political activism than it is a way of contributing to it.”16 Repeatedly Davis expresses his consternation at this state of affairs, finding most answers to the problem of art and politics wanting. Worse yet, he alleges, the question is no longer even asked: “The question of what, if any, relation artists might have to activism has receded into the background.”17

Painting pictures, it may well be conceded, will never abolish capital or bring war to an end. The question that must be posed to Davis, however, is whether “activism” is capable of achieving what art cannot. Why did the occupations of Vietnam and Iraq come to an end, after all? Was it due to the continued activism of domestic antiwar movements? Perhaps. But the troop withdrawals could just as easily have been motivated by simple economic exhaustion — exacerbated by the crises of 1973 and 2008, for example — as the wars’ unpopularity. Davis points out that “the 2003 invasion of Iraq was preceded by the largest coordinated demonstrations in human history.”18 Nevertheless, the civilian administrations leading the US and British forces went ahead with their planned aggression anyway. What measurable impact did these demonstrations actually have?

A few minor quibbles might be made regarding the rest of the text. “Given how widespread the interest in alternative currents of Marxist thought has been in both the academy and the more high-minded art magazines — from the Frankfurt School to Situationism to various forms of post-Althusserian philosophy — it is telling that the Trotskyist tradition, with its activist emphasis, is so little discussed,” writes Davis. “This absence is particularly inexcusable given that Trotsky had a great deal to say about artistic matters, in ways that refute many of the persistent stereotypes about the Marxist approach to art.”19 It’s hard not to agree with his judgment on this score. Trotsky’s theory of art has been unjustly neglected for well over a half-century. Regrettably, Davis misses an ideal opportunity to close this gap in the existing scholarship. Clement Greenberg and Meyer Schapiro, two of the twentieth century’s greatest art critics whose Trotskyism is constantly downplayed or suppressed in mainstream accounts, appear nowhere in Art and Class.

Some of the significant points of contact between Theodor Adorno’s aesthetic theory and Trotskyist literature on art and revolution are therefore lost.20 These are evident in Adorno and Greenberg’s almost contemporaneous writings on kitsch in the 1930s, as well as in Schapiro’s role as an intermediary between the Trotskyism and the Frankfurt School (he was a frequent correspondent with Trotsky from 1937 to 1939, roughly the same time that Horkheimer and Adorno were staying at his place near Columbia University). Though appreciative of the context in which they were writing, Davis takes great pains to distance himself from their seemingly pessimistic appraisal of mass society and the “culture industry,” which he sees as too far removed from the more immediate concerns of class struggle. Had he connected the dots between Adorno, Trotsky, Greenberg, and Schapiro, perhaps a more nuanced picture of their overlap and adjacency might emerge.21

Otherwise, there is very little to object to in Davis’ Art and Class. The part of the book that’s been the occasion of such uproar and indignation to this point, its sociological claim that artists are “middle-class,” is lucidly presented and compellingly argued. It should by any objective measure be uncontroversial. The charge that Davis is dismissive or contemptuous of artists is likewise baseless; he even leaps to the defense of figures routinely demonized in the press like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, the enfants terribles of conceptualism,22 as well as “outsider” artists like Henry Darger and Martín Ramírez.23 Similarly, while harboring no illusions about the unsavory realities that undergird the ostensibly aloof “art world” — a misleading term, which he contests — Davis refuses to write off as childish idealism the artistic impulse to resist commodification.24 He peels back the layers of cynical calculation, stratification, and obscene opulence that attach to the glittering realm of art, but insists that “art’s standoffish approach to popular culture is not merely a foolish set of ideas that can be waved aside.”25 Davis returns time and again in Art and Class to the material foundations of such ideologies. As such, it is a valuable contribution to the contemporary field of leftist art criticism.


1 Davis, Ben. “Art and Class.” 9.5 Theses on Art and Class and Other Writings. (Haymarket Press. Chicago, IL: 2013). Pg. 14.
2 Ibid., pg. 21.
3 Ibid., pg. 24.
4 Davis, Ben. “Art and Inequality.” 9.5 Theses on Art and Class. Pg. 79.
5 Davis, Ben. “White Walls, Glass Ceilings.” 9.5 Theses on Art and Class. Pgs. 112-113.
6 See n+1’s volume What was the Hipster? and articles in Jacobin like “Resenting Hipsters” or “The ‘Fucking Hipster’ Show.”
7 Davis, Ben. “Hipster Aesthetics.” 9.5 Theses on Art and Class. Pgs. 118-121, 123.
8 Ibid., pg. 124.
9 Davis, Ben. “The Semi-Post-Postmodern Condition.” 9.5 Theses on Art and Class. Pgs. 166.
10 Davis, Ben. “How Political are ‘Political Aesthetics’?” 9.5 Theses on Art and Class. Pg. 69.
11 Davis, “The Semi-Post-Postmodern Condition.” Pgs. 164-165.
12 Davis, “Art and Class.” Pg. 11.
13 Iles, Anthony and Vishmidt, Marina. “Work, Work Your Thoughts, and Therein See a Siege.” Communization and Its Discontents. (minor compositions. New York, NY: 2010). Pgs. 137-138.
14 Davis, Ben. “Collective Delusions.” 9.5 Theses on Art and Class. Pg. 52.
15 Davis, “How Political are ‘Political Aesthetics’?” Pg. 63.
16 Ibid., pg. 72.
17 Davis, Ben. “What Good is Political Art in Times Like These?” 9.5 Theses on Art and Class. Pg. 46.
18 Davis, “How Political are ‘Political Aesthetics’?” Pg. 65.
19 Davis, Ben. “Introduction.” 9.5 Theses on Art and Class. Pg. 3.
20 Schneider, Bret. “Trotsky’s Theory of Art.” Platypus Review. (№ 37: July 2011). Pgs. 3-4.
21 Davis, “Art and Class.” Pgs. 10-11.
22 Davis, Ben. “In Defense of Concepts.” 9.5 Theses on Art and Class. Pgs. 149-156.
23 Davis, Ben. “The Agony of the Interloper.” 9.5 Theses on Art and Class. Pgs. 92-93.
24 Davis, Ben. “Beyond the Art World.” 9.5 Theses on Art and Class. Pgs. 171-173.
25 Davis, Ben. “Commerce and Consciousness.” 9.5 Theses on Art and Class. Pg. 130.

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