” When art is finally worthless, it will be free for everyone to make and enjoy.” – Destroying art in order to save human creativity
[I tend to think of Ben Davis as a useful idiot and this critique of his work spells out some of the reasons for that.]
Artists’ self-important claims for their work makes them worse than useless for political activism
Can you call yourself an artist and an activist at the same time? Or is the artists’ personal brand always in the way? 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, Ben Davis’s new collection of essays, addresses these questions and other similar ones with an admirable clarity that invites debate. In these pieces, Davis, a Marxist art critic and executive editor of Artinfo.com, shows little overt interest in policing the boundaries of art—there are virtually no assessments of the aesthetic value of particular artworks. Yet he ends up preserving a nebulous view of “great” art’s supposedly objective appeal that undermines his apparent political concerns. Art accrues meaning via its audience, which is inevitably structured by social relations. To imagine that its value can come from anywhere else is to obfuscate the centrality of class that Davis is otherwise eager to bring to light.
This makes artists inescapably individualistic, concerned chiefly about differentiating their product. As Davis notes, “an overemphasis on the creation of individual, signature forms—a professional requirement—can as often make it a distraction from the needs of an actual movement, which are after all collective, welding together tastes of all kinds.” Artists must produce their reputation as a singular commodity on the market, which makes their chief obstacle other would-be artists rather than capitalism as a system, regardless of whatever critical content might inhere in their work. When artists patronize the working class with declarations of solidarity, their vows are motivated less by a desire for social change than by the imperative that they enhance the distinctive value of their personal brand.
According to Davis, the artists’ class interest “involves defining creativity as professional self-expression, which therefore restricts it to creative experts”—the artists. Contemporary visual art, then, is a “a specific creative discipline that arrogates to itself the status of representing ‘creativity’ in general.” Rather than being a common property developed by the “general intellect” of workers in collaboration and social interaction, creativity becomes the intellectual property of certified artists alone, who, for their livelihood, administer it for the rest of society. That is, “real” creativity becomes the preserve of a specially trained elite rather than the evolutionary inheritance of the entire human species.
Whether or not it correlates to distinctions in talent, this distinction between the fake creativity of ordinary people working in common and the certified creativity of appointed artists working alone or atop a hierarchy allows those artists to make “artworks” with a value on the market. The point is to give only artists a true property stake in their creative activity—only their creative work has inherent value. Everyone else’s creative effort is just plain old “labor,” which is worthless until purchased by capital. Limiting authentic creativity to proven professional artists makes creativity both aspirational (it models how nonartists should structure their leisure) and vicariously accessible (nonartists can absorb creativity through awed exposure to properly certified art objects). It is thus that artists “represent creativity tailored to capitalist specifications.” Artists become the designated exemplars of the form liberty can take under an economic system that prizes innovation and glorifies ideologically the dignity of the small proprietor. Though Davis recognizes this, he also tries to give it a dialectical spin, arguing that the artists’ model of freedom demonstrates what autonomy looks like and why it might be worth struggling for.
…The structure of the entire art milieu is meant to forestall the broader appreciation of art and protect its capability to signify status. It is meant to allow rich people to recognize the fruits of their wealth in their exclusive access to the world’s finest things. The glory of the view lies primarily in its being private-access. Ordinary people’s appreciation of art attaches to works like so many barnacles, ruining their meaning for collectors. As with any luxury brand, the wrong sort of audience for an artist can sully their market value completely.
This is why so much of the discourse that surrounds contemporary art is so nauseating. It deliberately aims to destroy the confidence of nonelite audiences in their own judgment; it wants to make their potential pleasure in art depend on a recognition of their exclusion from the realm of art-making. We get the joy of knowing there’s some consumption experience beyond us that can remain forever aspirational, which gives us cause to cherish whatever brief peeks we get over the wall.
The same could be said of the world of literary journals, creative writing, and the “intellectual milieu” in general; each serves as a catch basin for those eager to transcend the ordinary economic relations that largely determine the lives of ordinary people. Often fueled by inherited privilege and a nurtured sense of entitlement, the up-and-coming cadres of the “creative class” seek ways to transform their yearning to be extraordinary into a career, and if that fails, into a politics based mainly on the demand for lucrative self-expression. All the while they imagine themselves exemplars of unsullied, disinterested aesthetic aspiration.
But it’s impossible to say artworks are “great” without also implying that those who can see that objective greatness are in a superior aesthetic position to those preoccupied with consumer junk. In wanting to preserve the traditional transcendental quality of art, Davis is arguing for the very same rarefied aura that critics and collectors and museums and art schools and all the other art-world institutions have always counted on and used as an alibi.
Far from working arm-in-arm with workers to liberate them from the forces that restrict their expression, artists are more likely to work to protect that aura and intensify the qualms ordinary people might have about thinking of their activities as art. Creativity must be held apart from consumerism, protected in the hands of a particular elite with the appropriate training to keep expression “authentically meaningful” rather than commercial. At the same time, authentic art production must be left in the hands of the professionals, who have been endowed with unique talent and have made a series of special sacrifices to develop their artistic gift. Ordinary people are endowed only with the ability to consume, and while they may think that’s creative, they’re kidding themselves.
…But that justification hinges on the idea that culturally recognized opportunities to be creative are scarce. It’s not that too many people are labeled artists then expected to work for less, as Davis suggests, but that not enough people recognize the artistry in what they are already doing and live with a sense of social inferiority and self-doubt. If they are to protect their own cultural capital, professional artists (and curators and critics) must endorse the standards that pronounce some people as uncreative.
Who cares about the sanctity of the “official culture,” which has a class-based interest in restricting that endorsement to a select few? The opportunities it provides and the self-realization that might stem from them are already poisoned from a political point of view. Davis won’t surrender the idea that “official approval matters” and that there is an objective basis for determining “legitimate self-expression.” Such official approval may matter to professional artists, because it is the source of their livelihood, and Davis seems eager to defend the right of a select few to make a living through art. To the rest of us, it is the stifling source of delegitimization. It is a reminder of the concrete reality of that solipsistic, insidery “art world” that Davis is otherwise so eager to see dismantled. Shouldn’t those excluded from the official art world create their own opportunities, according to their own communal standards, pitting their values against those of the official culture, and the social order that supports it, if necessary? Shouldn’t they destroy art to save it?
Similarly, in a postscript to his essay “White Walls, Glass Ceilings,” Davis urges we fight for “a world where art’s value escapes the deformities imposed upon it by an unequal society.” Davis wants there to be generalized social practices that can certify art’s value without somehow stratifying a society in which art has economic value. Yet if artistic ability is unequally distributed by nature, that fact alone will generate an unequal society as long as art is singled out for special cultural significance. Art is so complicit in structuring cultural hierarchies, it makes more sense to argue that art’s value never precedes the existence of those deformities and to agitate for a world where art is granted no alienable “value” at all.
In the collection’s last paragraph, Davis comes around to something like this position, that from the perspective of a future communist society, the idea that “great art was something rare and precious, a triumph that had to be scratched out against all odds, a privilege that needed to be defended with boundless righteousness and walled off in its own specific professional sphere will likely seem strange.” There is no reason to regard it as less than strange now. We can start by rejecting the need to identify “great” art and the class victors it nominates. When art is finally worthless, it will be free for everyone to make and enjoy.