Resources on communization

“Com­mun­iz­a­tion” is a the­or­et­ic­al cur­rent that emerged from the French ul­traleft after 1968. Gilles Dauvé is usu­ally cred­ited with coin­ing the term ac­cord­ing to its con­tem­por­ary use in his 1972 es­say on “Cap­it­al­ism and Com­mun­ism” (though in­ter­est­ingly, a cog­nate ap­peared in Eng­lish as early as 1849 in the journ­al of the Brit­ish Owen­ite Good­wyn Barmby, The Pro­methean). Later in that dec­ade, the ed­it­or­i­al col­lect­ive Théo­rie Com­mu­niste ex­pan­ded on the no­tion in at­tempt­ing to the­or­ize “com­mun­ism in the present tense.” It be­came the linch­pin of their more pro­cess-ori­ented vis­ion of how to tran­scend cap­it­al­ism. Rather than pos­it­ing com­mun­ism as some sort of end-goal or a fi­nal state to be achieved after an in­def­in­ite peri­od of trans­ition, com­mun­iz­a­tion un­der­stands it­self as an on­go­ing state of move­ment or flux. Or, as Léon de Mat­tis ex­plains, com­mun­iz­a­tion in­volves “the over­com­ing of all ex­ist­ing con­di­tions can only come from a phase of in­tense and in­sur­rec­tion­ist struggle dur­ing which the forms of struggle and the forms of fu­ture life will take flesh in one and the same pro­cess.”

A num­ber of art­icles by Gilles Dauvé, Karl Nes­ic, Bruno As­tari­an, and oth­er mem­bers of the group Troploin have been trans­lated in­to Eng­lish, along with pieces by Ro­land Si­mon, Bern­ard Ly­on, Léon de Mat­tis, and oth­er mem­bers of the groups Blau­machen or Théo­rie Com­mu­niste. Per­haps the best work on com­mun­iz­a­tion to ap­pear in Eng­lish to date, however, is the ori­gin­al ma­ter­i­al put out by End­notes, which formed in 2008 after a po­lem­ic between Brit­ish pub­lic­a­tion Auf­heben and Théo­rie Com­mu­niste. Moreover, the transat­lantic peri­od­ic­al Sic then co­alesced in 2011, pub­lish­ing its second and fi­nal is­sue in 2014. (The journ­al has since be­come de­funct, re­portedly as the res­ult of dis­agree­ments over the overly “aca­dem­ic” in­terest in the the­ory dis­played by the Amer­ic­an wing com­pared with fo­gies meet­ing in forests back in France. Not to men­tion the shit­storm that en­sued once it was dis­covered that Wo­land, one of Sic’s con­trib­ut­ors, had be­come a high-level func­tion­ary for Syr­iza in Greece. Dia­lect­ic­al De­lin­quents first blogged about it back in April of 2015, eli­cit­ing a series of re­sponses and re­crim­in­a­tions).

You can down­load full-text PD­Fs of the fol­low­ing com­mun­iz­a­tion texts by click­ing be­low:

Miscellaneous
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  1. Gilles Dauvé and François Mar­tin, The Ec­lipse and Ree­m­er­gence of the Com­mun­ist Move­ment (1997, 2015)
  2. Gilles Dauvé, A Con­tri­bu­tion to the Cri­tique of Polit­ic­al Autonomy (2008)
  3. Ben­jamin Noys, ed., Com­mun­iz­a­tion and Its Dis­con­tents (2011)
  4. Bruno As­tari­an, Gilles Dauvé, Jean Bar­rot, Everything Must Go! The Ab­ol­i­tion of Value (2016)

End­notes
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  1. End­notes 1: Pre­lim­in­ary Ma­ter­i­als for a Bal­ance Sheet of the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tury (Oc­to­ber 2008)
  2. End­notes 2: Misery and the Value-Form (April 2010)
  3. End­notes 3: Gender, Race, Class, and Oth­er Mis­for­tunes (Septem­ber 2013)
  4. End­notes 4: Unity in Sep­ar­a­tion (Decem­ber 2015)

Sic
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  1. Sic: In­ter­na­tion­al Journ­al for Com­mun­iz­a­tion, Volume 1 (Novem­ber 2011)
  2. Sic: In­ter­na­tion­al Journ­al for Com­mun­iz­a­tion, Volume 2 (Janu­ary 2014)

Chuǎng
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  1. Chung 1: Dead Generations (2015)

I have nu­mer­ous ob­jec­tions to the vari­ous strands of com­mun­iz­a­tion the­ory, though I find the prob­lems it’s raised to be im­port­ant. These may be briefly enu­mer­ated.

First of all, I am not con­vinced that the no­tion of a “trans­ition­al peri­od” is so prob­lem­at­ic that it must be done away with al­to­geth­er. Marx main­tained in his “Cri­tique of the Gotha Pro­gram” (1875) that “between cap­it­al­ist and com­mun­ist so­ci­ety lies the peri­od of the re­volu­tion­ary trans­form­a­tion of the one in­to the oth­er. Cor­res­pond­ing to this is also a polit­ic­al trans­ition peri­od in which the state can be noth­ing but the re­volu­tion­ary dic­tat­or­ship of the pro­let­ari­at.” Seizure of state power, wheth­er first “smashed” or left re­l­at­ively in­tact, is ana­thema to the com­mun­izers. En­gels’ quip about the ex­iled Blan­quist com­munards also comes to mind: “These thirty-three are com­mun­ists be­cause they ima­gine that, as soon as they have only the good will to jump over in­ter­me­di­ate sta­tions and com­prom­ises, everything is as­sured, and if, as they firmly be­lieve, it ‘be­gins’ in a day or two, and they take the helm, ‘com­mun­ism will be in­tro­duced’ the day after to­mor­row. And they are not com­mun­ists if this can­not be done im­me­di­ately. What child­ish naïveté to ad­vance im­pa­tience as a con­vin­cing the­or­et­ic­al ar­gu­ment!”

Second, I do not ac­cept the premise, ad­vanced by both End­notes and Théo­rie Com­mu­niste, that “pro­gram­mat­ism” is dead and gone. “Pro­gram­mat­ism” broadly refers to the era of work­ing-class polit­ic­al pro­grams, so­cial­ist parties and syn­dic­al­ist uni­ons, in which in­di­vidu­als’ status as pro­du­cers was af­firmed. All claims to polit­ic­al le­git­im­acy were thought to flow from this fact. Though they dif­fer some­what on the dates that bookend this peri­od­iz­a­tion, the two journ­als share the same gen­er­al con­clu­sion that this era is at an end. Joshua Clover and Aaron Ben­anav summed it up suc­cinctly in a 2014 art­icle, “Can Dia­lectics Break BRICs?”:

The col­lect­ive ex­per­i­ence of work and life that gave rise to the van­guard party dur­ing the era of in­dus­tri­al­iz­a­tion has passed away with in­dus­tri­al­iz­a­tion it­self. We re­cog­nize as ma­ter­i­al­ists that the cap­it­al-labor re­la­tion that made such a party ef­fect­ive — not only as idea but as real­ity — is no longer op­er­at­ive. A changed cap­it­al-labor re­la­tion will give rise to new forms of or­gan­iz­a­tion. We should not cri­ti­cize present-day struggles in the name of ideal­ized re­con­struc­tions from the past. Rather, we should de­scribe the com­mun­ist po­ten­tial that presents it­self im­man­ently in the lim­its con­fron­ted by today’s struggles.

Richard Ru­bin of Platy­pus raised some points back in 2013 with which I still for the most part agree. While End­notes’ ap­prais­al of the polit­ic­al im­pot­ence of the Left in the present is sim­il­ar to that of the Platy­pus, Ben­anav con­ten­ded that the lat­ter’s ana­lys­is did not pen­et­rate down to the hard un­der­ly­ing real­it­ies that ex­plain why this is the case. By re­main­ing at the level of ideas, fo­cus­ing on ideo­lo­gic­al re­gres­sions and the dia­lectics of de­feat, Platy­pus failed to see the changed so­cioeco­nom­ic con­di­tions that lie be­neath. “Fail­ing to see this ma­ter­i­al basis for the death of the Left, Platy­pus is help­less to de­scribe the char­ac­ter of class struggle over the last dec­ade and a half,” Ben­anav ar­gued. “Their per­spect­ive com­pletely cov­ers over the real gap that sep­ar­ates the present from the past. Work­ers are only able to find a com­mon in­terest di­luted through the ex­tra­ver­sion of class be­long­ing in­to some oth­er weakened form of an af­firm­able share of ex­ist­ence.” Even­tu­ally, Ru­bin countered. “It is true in a cer­tain sense that the con­di­tions for re­volu­tion emerge from struggle, but there are many dif­fer­ent forms of struggle. People do not al­ways come to the con­clu­sion that they should struggle, and even then they of­ten struggle in un­pro­pi­tious ways.”

Un­like End­notes, I be­lieve the so­cial­ist work­ers’ move­ment re­mains the un­sur­pass­able ho­ri­zon through which alone cap­it­al­ism can be over­come. If these older mod­al­it­ies of struggle no longer have any real pur­chase on the world, then it is not just a par­tic­u­lar form of polit­ics that has seen its last but rather polit­ics it­self. Len­in once re­marked that polit­ics prop­er only be­gins once you start count­ing in the mil­lions: “As long as it was (and inas­much as it still is) a ques­tion of win­ning the pro­let­ari­at’s van­guard over to the side of com­mun­ism, pri­or­ity went and still goes to pro­pa­ganda work; even pro­pa­ganda circles, with all their pa­ro­chi­al lim­it­a­tions, are use­ful un­der these con­di­tions, and pro­duce good res­ults. But when it is a ques­tion of prac­tic­al ac­tion by the masses, of the dis­pos­i­tion, if one may so put it, of vast armies, of the align­ment of all the class forces in a giv­en so­ci­ety for the fi­nal and de­cis­ive battle, then pro­pa­gand­ist meth­ods alone, the mere re­pe­ti­tion of the truths of ‘pure’ com­mun­ism, are of no avail. In these cir­cum­stances, one must not count in thou­sands, like the pro­pa­gand­ist be­long­ing to a small group that has not yet giv­en lead­er­ship to the masses; in these cir­cum­stances one must count in mil­lions and tens of mil­lions.”

Some fur­ther ob­jec­tions with which I gen­er­ally con­cur were made by Don­ald Par­kin­son already more than a year ago. Oth­er points of con­ten­tion are fleshed out in the piece be­low, by some Ger­man com­rades in Kos­mo­prolet. End­notes trans­lated this piece last year, to vent­ri­lo­quize their “frus­tra­tion with the way [com­mun­iz­a­tion] has be­come as­so­ci­ated with a new the­or­et­ic­al brand and/or rad­ic­al iden­tity.” It’s a great piece.

tullio-crali-aerial-machine-1980

On communization and its theorists

Kosmoprolet
January 2016
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This text was ori­gin­ally pub­lished in the Friends’ journ­al Kos­mo­prolet as a re­sponse to Théo­rie Com­mu­niste’s cri­tique of the Friends’ 28 Theses on Class So­ci­ety. A trans­la­tion of Théo­rie Com­mu­niste’s ori­gin­al cri­tique can be found here.

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In the 1970s, some­body in France in­ven­ted the word com­mun­iz­a­tion in or­der to ex­press a fairly simple, but im­port­ant idea: the pro­let­ari­an re­volu­tion is not the self-real­iz­a­tion of the pro­let­ari­at, but its self-ab­ol­i­tion. This idea is noth­ing new, for it can already be found in a po­lem­ic­al work from 1845.1 However, it nev­er played a strong role in the labor move­ment, sig­ni­fy­ing at best the ho­ri­zon of a dis­tant fu­ture. Rather, the con­quest of polit­ic­al power by the pro­let­ari­at topped the agenda. In the sub­sequent trans­ition­al so­cial­ist so­ci­ety, which was still to be dom­in­ated by com­mod­ity pro­duc­tion and the strict meas­ure­ment of the in­di­vidu­al share of so­cial wealth, the pro­let­ari­at would lay the found­a­tions for com­mun­ism as a class­less so­ci­ety in which there would be no more wage sys­tem and, in­deed, no more pro­let­ari­at. The term com­mun­iz­a­tion ex­presses the ob­sol­es­cence of this no­tion. Ac­cord­ing to the pro­ponents of com­mun­iz­a­tion, com­mun­ism is not a dis­tant goal, but the move­ment it­self which elim­in­ates all ex­change re­la­tions as well as the state. As is ap­par­ent from our 28 Theses on Class So­ci­ety, we share this per­spect­ive, al­though we do so, ac­cord­ing to a French the­ory circle, in a fash­ion that is halfhearted, and ul­ti­mately bound to the “af­firm­a­tion of the pro­let­ari­at.”2 It is this we seek to ex­am­ine be­low.

Continue reading

Reap the whirlwind

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But muh rain­bow co­ali­tion of mar­gin­al­ized iden­tit­ies will smash the kyri­archy as we sprinkle ma­gic di­versity pix­ie dust over every­one and cre­ate a shiny lib­er­al Star­bucks uto­pia. Yes­ter­day was 18 Bru­maire CCXXV ac­cord­ing to the French Re­pub­lic­an cal­en­dar, by the way. Just a happy co­in­cid­ence, I’m sure.

Left-lib­er­al “pro­gress­ives” did this to them­selves. This is ex­actly what re­treat­ing in­to cul­tur­al (i.e., iden­tity) polit­ics, while abandon­ing class as the basis for a so­cially trans­form­at­ive co­ali­tion, gets you. If you make no at­tempt to ap­peal to work­ers qua work­ers, the Right will in­ev­it­ably make in­roads with­in that group. As they in­deed have. So I don’t pity any­one who is ser­i­ously dis­traught by these res­ults. Blame for Trump can­not be laid solely at the door­step of “crack­ers” and hicks; he did sig­ni­fic­antly bet­ter among blacks and Lati­nos than Rom­ney, his Re­pub­lic­an pre­de­cessor.

Most anti-af­firm­at­ive ac­tion shit is totally right-wing, so I will be­gin by say­ing that I in no way share the polit­ics of most people who look to cri­ti­cize it. But it’s ul­ti­mately a cos­met­ic meas­ure, which cre­ates a black and minor­ity bour­geois­ie and polit­ic­al elite (“black faces in high places,” etc.). When coupled with gen­er­al eco­nom­ic stag­na­tion and wage de­pres­sion, grow­ing in­come in­equal­ity and job loss, it’s a re­cipe for re­vanchist ma­jor­it­ari­an back­lash. Edu­cated lib­er­al elites ex­pressed noth­ing but con­tempt for the work­ing poor in fly­over coun­try, whom they vil­i­fied as “one re­ac­tion­ary mass” — i.e., a “bas­ket of de­plor­ables” — of ig­nor­ant ra­cists.

In such an at­mo­sphere, even the slight­est over­ture to the work­ing class was bound to res­on­ate enorm­ously. Here, of course, the ap­peal was made us­ing xeno­phobic and hate­ful rhet­or­ic, ex­ploit­ing long­stand­ing ra­cial di­vi­sions and cap­it­al­iz­ing on deeply-felt anxi­et­ies. Plus, the lack of any ap­peal to the work­ing class by the Demo­crats also meant that poor minor­it­ies were not en­er­gized to vote for them. Smug, latte-sip­ping lib­er­als just res­ted on their laurels, se­cure in their be­lief that vic­tory was as­sured by simple demo­graph­ic shifts. All this while of­fer­ing noth­ing to work­ing blacks or Lati­nos, and prom­ising con­tin­ued war on those parts of the globe from which the refugee crisis first arose. Continue reading

Against accelerationism, for Marxism

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In­tro­duct­ory note

I re­pro­duce here a short post by my friend Re­id Kane cri­tiquing the fun­da­ment­al premises of “left ac­cel­er­a­tion­ism.” For those un­fa­mil­i­ar with this the­or­et­ic­al form­a­tion, I ad­vise they check out #Ac­cel­er­ate: An Ac­cel­er­a­tion­ist Read­er, which presents its self-se­lec­ted ante­cedents as well as some ori­gin­al ma­ter­i­als writ­ten by pro­ponents of the move­ment. Ben­jamin Noys’ book Ma­lign Ve­lo­cit­ies, which is brief but quite good, is also worth look­ing in­to for any­one seek­ing a more crit­ic­al per­spect­ive. McK­en­zie Wark, Ant­o­nio Negri, and nu­mer­ous oth­ers have writ­ten re­sponses as well. A few months back I sum­mar­ized a de­bate between Peter Wolfend­ale and An­thony Paul Smith and ad­ded some of my own thoughts on “The Fu­ture of En­light­en­ment.” Then later I wrote a bit de­fend­ing the Pro­methean as­pect of Marx’s thought, “Against In­ad­vert­ent Cli­mate Change.”

My only oth­er re­mark re­gard­ing Re­id’s piece is that it is use­fully sup­ple­men­ted by an­oth­er short doc­u­ment, this time by Karl Marx. His “Speech on the Tenth An­niversary of the People’s Pa­per is avail­able at the Marx­ists in­ter­net archive, and is to my mind the most con­cise sum­mary of Marx’s con­tri­bu­tion to polit­ic­al thought out­side of the Mani­festo. In it, he un­leashes a series of com­pact dia­lect­ic­al in­ver­sions that cap­ture the am­bi­val­ence of cap­it­al­ist de­vel­op­ment that Re­id is driv­ing at. An ad­um­brated ver­sion of its main points ap­pears be­low:

The so-called re­volu­tions of 1848 were but poor in­cid­ents — small frac­tures and fis­sures in the dry crust of European so­ci­ety. However, they de­nounced the abyss. Be­neath the ap­par­ently sol­id sur­face, they be­trayed oceans of li­quid mat­ter, only need­ing ex­pan­sion to rend in­to frag­ments con­tin­ents of hard rock. Nois­ily and con­fusedly they pro­claimed the eman­cip­a­tion of the pro­let­ari­an, i.e. the secret of the nine­teenth cen­tury, and of the re­volu­tion of that cen­tury.

That so­cial re­volu­tion, it is true, was no nov­elty in­ven­ted in 1848. Steam, elec­tri­city, and the self-act­ing mule were re­volu­tion­ists of a rather more dan­ger­ous char­ac­ter than even cit­izens Barbés, Raspail, and Blan­qui…On the one hand, there have star­ted in­to life in­dus­tri­al and sci­entif­ic forces, which no epoch of the former hu­man his­tory had ever sus­pec­ted. On the oth­er hand, there ex­ist symp­toms of de­cay, far sur­pass­ing the hor­rors re­cor­ded of the lat­ter times of the Ro­man Em­pire. In our days, everything seems preg­nant with its con­trary: Ma­chinery, gif­ted with the won­der­ful power of short­en­ing and fructi­fy­ing hu­man labor, we be­hold starving and over­work­ing it; the new­fangled sources of wealth, by some strange weird spell, are turned in­to sources of want; The vic­tor­ies of art seem bought by the loss of char­ac­ter.

At the same pace that man­kind mas­ters nature, man seems to be­come en­slaved to oth­er men or to his own in­famy. Even the pure light of sci­ence seems un­able to shine but on the dark back­ground of ig­nor­ance. All our in­ven­tion and pro­gress seem to res­ult in en­dow­ing ma­ter­i­al forces with in­tel­lec­tu­al life, and in stul­ti­fy­ing hu­man life in­to a ma­ter­i­al force.

This ant­ag­on­ism between mod­ern in­dustry and sci­ence on the one hand, mod­ern misery and dis­sol­u­tion on the oth­er hand; this ant­ag­on­ism between the pro­duct­ive powers and the so­cial re­la­tions of our epoch is a fact, palp­able, over­whelm­ing, and not to be con­tro­ver­ted. Some parties may wail over it; oth­ers may wish to get rid of mod­ern arts, in or­der to get rid of mod­ern con­flicts. Or they may ima­gine that so sig­nal a pro­gress in in­dustry wants to be com­pleted by as sig­nal a re­gress in polit­ics. On our part, we do not mis­take the shape of the shrewd spir­it that con­tin­ues to mark all these con­tra­dic­tions. We know that to work well the new­fangled forces of so­ci­ety, they only want to be mastered by new­fangled men — and such are the work­ing men. They are as much the in­ven­tion of mod­ern time as ma­chinery it­self.

His­tory is the judge. Its ex­e­cu­tion­er, the pro­let­ari­an.

En­joy Re­id’s art­icle, along with some im­ages from pro­duc­tions of the Czech play­wright Karel Čapek’s RUR (or Ros­sum’s Uni­ver­sal Ro­bots).

Against ac­cel­er­a­tion­ism, for Marx­ism

Re­id Kane

Reb­logged from bar­bar­ie della re­flessione

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To the ex­tent that left ac­cel­er­a­tion­ists draw upon Marx, they are re­flect­ing Marx’s re­cog­ni­tion of the pos­it­ive his­tor­ic­al role cap­it­al­ism can and must play, spe­cific­ally in its ca­pa­city to de­vel­op the forces of pro­duc­tion, in­creas­ing in­tens­ively and ex­tens­ively the pro­ductiv­ity of hu­man activ­ity.

Yet in­so­far as they re­ject the dia­lectic, they lose Marx’s cru­cial polit­ic­al in­sight. This de­vel­op­ment­al dy­nam­ic is in­tim­ately tied to the struggle of the work­ing class to in­crease value of its labor power, and thus to di­min­ish the need to work. Yet tech­no­logy is em­ployed not to eman­cip­ate the work­er from the need to work, but from the op­por­tun­ity to do so, and thus to eman­cip­ate the cap­it­al­ist from the work­er. It is em­ployed in or­der to drive down the value of labor power, pre­cisely to the point at which their labor-power be­comes cheap­er than “labor-sav­ing” al­tern­at­ives. Continue reading

The artist at work

Robin Treadwell
Platypus Review
February 1, 2014
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Book review:

Ben Davis, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class
Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013

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On a May night in 2012, Sotheby’s sold a version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream for 119.9 million dollars, setting a new record for the price paid for a single work of art. Meanwhile, union art handlers, locked out in a months-long dispute over a new contract, picketed the auction house along with Occupy Museums activists. While this sad little snapshot of art world disparity is not exactly new, the past few years have seen this type of excess thrown into sharp relief — against the background of the 2008 financial crisis and, to a lesser extent, the Occupy movement. Niche art blogs, art magazines, and more mainstream outlets are increasingly scandalized by the intersection of art and money, perhaps because it has become so glaring. For instance, last year Reuters’ finance blogger, Felix Salmon, wrote an outraged piece chiding a Citibank “research report” on the artist Gerhard Richter, complete with a graph tracking his auction prices and those of other blue-chip artists in comparison to the S&P 500.[1] In 2011, the New York Times published a lengthy expose of Ronald Lauder’s strategic donations of art to his own museum, the Neue Galerie, as a sophisticated tax evasion strategy.[2] Prominent art writer Jerry Saltz periodically chimes in on the subject, lately with complaints about the dominance and corrupting influence of “mega-galleries” such as Gagosian, a franchise with fourteen locations worldwide, calling them “too big not to fail.”[3] The legendary art critic Dave Hickey has opted out of the game altogether, preferring not to continue on as a member of the “courtier class”: “All we [art editors and critics] do is wander around the palace and advise very rich people. It’s not worth my time,” he told the Observer.[4] Additionally, museums and other art institutions host a seemingly endless series of public forums, talks and panel discussions with titles such as “Materials, Money & Crisis” and “Art Against Reification.”

Artists, too, have long voiced concerns. The artist Andrea Fraser has made a career of institutional critique; her inclusion in the 2012 Whitney Biennial may be a sign of this particular genre’s renewed cachet. The Biennial is traditionally viewed as an indicator of the art world’s general mood, and in 2012 this mood was introspective art-about-art. The New York Times’ Roberta Smith praised the show for its avoidance of “usual suspects and blue-chip galleries,” going on to write that it “separates art objects from the market and moves them closer to where they come from, artists.”[5] Fraser’s contribution, an incisive essay titled “There’s No Place Like Home,” argues that art discourse, her own brand of institutional critique included, has itself become co-opted; moreover, it often serves as a way to avoid actually dealing with issues in a meaningful way — critique as a form of inoculation.

Despite all the hand-wringing over the economics of the art world, one rarely finds class mentioned, much less Marxism. This despite the fact that art theory still employs the language of (Marxist) cultural theory via the Frankfurt school — as Andrea Fraser puts it in the above-mentioned essay, the “broad and often unquestioned claim” is that “art in some way critiques, negates, questions, challenges, confronts, contests, subverts, or transgresses norms, conventions, hierarchies, relations of power and domination, or other social structures.”[6] One gets the sense, however, that the contemporary art world considers itself much too (post-)postmodern and sophisticated to seriously give credence to anything as reductive as Marxism. Yet there is clearly a yearning, at least in some quarters, for a more systematic way of addressing the situation art finds itself in at present.

Lucas the Elder, Luther as Professor, (1529)

Lucas the Elder, Luther as Professor, (1529)

This is the somewhat fraught atmosphere into which Ben Davis’ new book of essays, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, emerges. Davis, a self-identified Marxist and activist who was until recently the executive editor of Artinfo.com, wrote the title essay as a contribution to a show at Winkleman Gallery in Chelsea. The show, “#class,” was a response to yet another art world controversy, over a show at the New Museum devoted to the collection of a wealthy trustee, Dakis Joannou, and curated not by one of the museum’s staff, but by an art-star friend of Joannou, the much-loathed Jeff Koons. A numbered, cross-indexed series of declarative statements, which Davis originally taped to the gallery door a la Martin Luther, the essay stands out as the book’s boldest and most rigorous chapter:

Thesis 1.0: Class is an issue of fundamental importance for art.

1.1: Inasmuch as art is part of and not independent of society, and society is marked by class divisions, these will also affect the functioning and character of the sphere of the visual arts.

1.7: …a critique of the art market is not the same as a critique of class in the sphere of the visual arts. Class is more fundamental and determinate than the market. (27)

The essay’s central argument is that “the predominant character of this sphere [of the visual arts] is middle-class” (28). By this, Davis means that artists have a degree of authority over the conditions and, to some extent, products of their own work that wage-laborers, no matter how well-paid, do not; but that, unlike the ruling class, they are not “capital personified,” i.e., they pursue their work for more than simply profit. Continue reading