In a now-forgotten pamphlet about Feuerbach, Friedrich Engels looked back contentedly on the revolution his predecessors had produced in the history of philosophy:
The great basic thought that the world is not to be comprehended as a complex of readymade things, but as a complex of processes, in which the things apparently stable no less than their mind images in our heads, the concepts, go through an uninterrupted change of coming into being and passing away … has, especially since the time of Hegel, so thoroughly permeated ordinary consciousness that in this generality it is now scarcely ever contradicted.
And a fine thing, too! But Engels, being a good sport, lets the enemy have a point or two as well:
The old method of investigation … which preferred to investigate things as given, as fixed and stable, a method the relics of which still strongly haunt people’s minds, had a great deal of historical justification in its day. It was necessary first to examine things before it was possible to examine processes.
The past was prologue, however, and we had now no longer any need for the fixed and stable things of the eighteenth century.
Were Engels to read Ben Davis’s “9.5 Theses on Art and Class,” written and circulated in early 2010, he would no doubt be shocked out of his complacency. He would immediately recognize, of course, the phrases that he and Marx had coined so long ago: “working class,” “relations of production,” “class interests.” Something of the style would also seem faintly like his own. Indeed, to Engels’s undead eyes the strangest expression would probably be “middle-class,” used by Davis, it seems, in place of “petty bourgeois.” (This appears to be purely an attempt to avoid ringing too many ideological bells at the same time, although it is only partly successful.)
Almost everything would be familiar—and yet everything would be strange. Where is the history, the development of these concepts? What is the actual structure and composition of the “working class,” on the basis of which it participates or does not participate in the art world? What means of production does the ruling class really control, and where do its mysterious “ideologies” really come from? Can it really be that the terminology and analytical framework that emerged in the course of Marx and Engels’s historical investigations could have survived through a hundred and fifty years only to end up in Davis’s theses, virtually unchanged? Engels’s declaration of victory over metaphysics, it would seem, was premature. We remain in 2010 still in the thrall of fixed and stable ideas, and questions of process are nowhere in sight.
The purpose of this response is not to rehabilitate “orthodox Marxism.” I do not even claim to put forth a Marxist analysis—or offer any positive alternatives at all. Instead, I will attempt simply to crack open some of the abstract concepts that populate Davis’s theses and subject them to at least a rudimentary critique. His approach, I will show, is crippled by a constant drift toward conceptual essentialization that serves only to ensure that its link to the world remains tenuous.
The most fundamental of Davis’s political concepts is, of course, “class,” and it finds a worthy partner in “ideology.” What can we make of class in his analysis? To begin with, there are clearly only three of them: the “ruling class,” the “middle class,” and the “working class.” The ruling class and the middle class produce ideologies. We don’t know what ideology the ruling class actually produces, but we can assume that it is something really powerful, nefarious, and successful, since it is “dominant”; presumably the “free market” is involved somewhere. The middle class ideology is more insidious: it is the idea that people do creative work and make things like art because they want to express themselves and achieve their personal goals. The middle class also has to get up in the morning and go to work, which Davis portentously labels a “contradiction.” (The existence of a “contradiction” is apparently important ipso facto, perhaps because the desire for independence among middle-class creative industry employees is in some way analogous to the way that the expansion of large-scale industry in nineteenth-century capitalist societies drove small shopkeepers out of business and contributed to the consolidation of workers’ interests and organizations.) We know less about the working class, which has no ideology, but does have an “outlook on the concept of ‘art’,” which seems to be the same thing, although one must not say so.
Does the ruling class really exist in the way that Davis thinks it does? He gives us a few examples of representative ruling-class agents in the art world: “large corporations, including auction houses and corporate collectors; art investors, private collectors and patrons; trustees and administrators of large cultural institutions and universities.” It is not explained why all of these should be labeled “ruling-class,” and the characterization seems problematic. After all, universities and even corporations are different; they have competing interests and competing political programs. Likewise, a private art collector is as likely to be a Marxist intellectual on the Upper West Side as a right-wing Harvard MBA with a trophy wife and a villa in Languedoc. Such quibbles are irrelevant in this case, however, because what Davis means by “ruling class” is abundantly clear: the term is just a synonym for “rich.”
To make a class concept synonymous with a notion based on wealth is harmful for any serious analysis; to blur the difference by describing it as a question of controlling “the material resources of society” is even more so. It is not simply that this obscures the role of the means of production—to put it in Marxist terms—which are distributed quite unevenly among the various categories of wealthy agents that are involved in the art world. In fact, controlling the means of production is itself a highly problematic idea: in the globalized contemporary economy they are controlled by a whole range of agents from workers’ and farmers’ cooperatives to Chinese bureaucrats to rebel armies. Even in American debates about art the battle lines are hardly ever drawn on anything like a simple income basis. In short, by attributing common interests, ideologies, and worldviews to a group as loosely-defined and fluid as “the rich,” one risks creating a fixed and stable analytical unity that resists any empirical questioning. With his concept of the “ruling class,” borrowed without historical foundation or argument from Marx and Engels, Ben Davis has done just that.
The “working class,” as it is represented here, is even more problematic. Once more Davis offers us a set of examples: “gallery workers, anonymous fabricators of artistic components, non-professional museum workers, etc.” And once more it is evident that in most respects these groups share more differences than similarities. It is doubtful that an “anonymous fabricator of artistic components”—by which I presume Davis means workers in paint factories and the like—will generally feel any connection to anything that can be labeled an “art world.” The broad designation of “non-professional museum workers,” on the other hand, can include individuals who see such work as a pathway into the art world (through internships or personal recommendations, for instance) as well as those who dissociate themselves from it entirely. This heterogeneity of low-wage or unskilled labor in the art world is only a reflection of its variety in the broader labor market of postindustrial countries as a whole. The growth of service industries, the expanding proportion of contingent and temporary labor, the decline of unions and traditional industry—all of these developments render utterly pointless any attempt to construct a unified concept of the “working class” that would be equivalent or even broadly parallel to the old Marxist proletariat.
But this does not stop Davis from attempting to do so, and the result is a series of vacuous, decontextualized generalizations about the importance of “an organized working class.” In Marx’s view, it was the environment of large factories employing thousands of workers that enabled working-class organization to flourish, since the workers in any given factory would share a common sense of their working conditions and economic interests. Such workplaces would provide a well-defined space for political agitation, due in part to the physical proximity of the workers to one another. Davis’s unstated implication—that a canvas-maker in a Shanghai factory and a janitor at MOMA can and ought to join together for the sake of their common interests—thus not only ignores the elementary organizational questions of space and numbers, but also substitutes a simple question for a much more difficult one. At issue, in effect, is the question of the possibility of working-class organization itself.
Davis’s ruminations on organization culminate in a description of “the working-class outlook on art” and the triumphant declaration of thesis 5.9: “A working-class perspective, then, reflects the most organic contemporary conception of generalized creative expression (even if circumstances don’t always allow this conception to be developed or expressed)—“art,” in this light, is at once subject to labor just like any other, and that which is opposed to the alienation of the present-day labor process, and is therefore implicitly free of any professional determination.” We have no indication of any sort about who it is that actually holds this conception, and where the author may have found out about it. Still less does the text let the members of the so-called working class speak for themselves, which makes the use of the term “organic” especially ironic. We are forced to conclude that what is being described here is not a “working –class perspective,” but rather a “working-class” perspective—that is, what a member of this abstract class would think if he were, theoretically, to exist. If so, then the model of the working class presented in the “Theses” is no less an ideological mystification than ”the free market” or “the liberal individual,” since it amounts to nothing more than an excuse to smuggle in the author’s own opinions by branding them with the reassuring name of a palatable abstract concept.
“Art” itself, in Davis’s argument, becomes such a mystified idea. On the one hand, it is presented as a “basic and general” impulse which permeates all social structures and creative activities. Its nature, however, soon subtly changes: it acquires a kind of quantitative aspect which it then becomes the goal of political action to increase. The operation is done without argument, which conceals all the attendant problems: surely art is not realized better or worse in different societies? Where would one get the yardstick through which to measure it? How is the goal of the “maximum flourishing of human artistic potential” to be weighed against other possible goals, such as peace or economic equality, without facile utopianism? A vision of the artistic world that fails to offer any more concrete definitions of its central term is equivalent in every way to the flabby “ideals” ridiculed by Marx and Engels in the nineteenth century. Its supposed political aspect, realized through the connection to the “working class” and to various “radical impulses,” is defined entirely a priori and, apparently, largely unconsciously; thus, Davis writes that the contradiction between the two middle-class definitions of art occurs “at every moment where what an artist wants to express comes into contradiction with the demands of making a living; in a situation where a minority dominates most of society’s resources, this is often.” The latent (and patently false assumption) that true art must always be politicized in a leftist direction is neither defended nor discussed.
Only in Davis’s concrete proposals, which are largely consigned to thesis 8, do we see the real impact of these essentialized concepts. For despite all the loud talk of the ruling class, of ideology and critique, of politics and revolt, Davis’s “Theses” finally have nothing more to offer than a few half-hearted tugs at the teat of the State. Government funding for the arts, art education, money for research projects: all this would—and did—warm the heart of any nineteenth-century European liberal, sweating into his starched cravat about the threat of the socialist masses. What could be better for institutionalization, cooptation, and control than barrels of cash dispensed in the name of abstract ideals? When at last Davis’s abstractions fail him, and he is unable after all to find in the “working class” a viable countervailing force against “ruling-class ideology,” the government is always there as a potential source of solutions. The gesture, of course, makes nonsense of the “critical” standpoint—and it would be difficult even for Hegel to see government art funding as a stop on the road to “changing the material basis of society.” His politics were a bit more direct.