From a forthcoming review
Image: Cover to Lajos Kassák’s
Ma: Aktivista folyóirat (1924)
Excerpted and partially excised from a generally much more favorable review of Ben Davis’ Art and Class, a very worthwhile read. Some of this material strayed a little too far off course to be included.
The one glaring weakness of Ben Davis’ recent collection 9.5 Theses on Art and Class is 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.” 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.” 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.” Continue reading