I am actually grateful to Greg Afinogenov for having started a discussion of my “9.5 Theses on Art and Class”, with his critique “Materialism and Art Criticism”, published in Idiom. My goal with that text was to start a discussion. Whether what he has written is the start of something like an intelligent, well-informed discussion is another question.
In anything further that he chooses to write about my text, I would like Afinogenov to at least acknowledge what a shoddy job he has done in summarizing what I actually wrote. He seems to obsess about issues of terminology, but hasn’t read my piece very carefully. Afinogenov imputes to me opinions that I do not have, and that I specifically reject in my text. He says I ignore things that I actually write about. He accuses me of being ahistorical, but even within the confines of the aphoristic style that I chose to present this material there is more history than in his response. I would think that Harvard would expect a higher degree of intellectual rigor from its graduate students.
In fact, Afinogenov needn’t have wasted our time with an entire essay, because what he wants to say can really be summed up in a single line, which is just the stereotype about anyone who brings up the issue of class: What Afinogenov wants to say is that I am crude and reductive.
But who, really, is being reductive? “Materialism and Art Criticism” says very little about the central point of my piece, what I take to be its main innovation with respect to the discourse around contemporary art (a topic that Afinogenov seems to have no knowledge of, despite the title of his essay). This is my contention that a theory of the middle class can better help us understand the dilemmas – political, artistic and economic – that contemporary artists face. I actually assume that he does not really address this aspect of the text precisely because it is fairly novel. Afinogenov seems very acquainted with a certain conventional line of critique about a certain kind of “Marxism.” He doesn’t seem that acquainted with my “9.5 Theses.”
Instead, he shoehorns my text into the mold that he is comfortable with attacking, directing almost all his fire at notions of “working class” and “ruling class” as “conceptual essentializations.” The mere discussion of class, for him, occludes the fact that different people within these groups have different specific aims and goals. Well, you know, I can’t agree on pizza toppings with my sister; Afinogenov would take this as “proof,” I suppose, that we are not related at all. That’s the quality of thinking here. Marx, for his part, characterized the bourgeoisie as a “band of warring brothers,” fully acknowledging that its different characters were often at odds. He did not state this as a proof of the non-existence of the bourgeoisie.
Afinogenov says that “what Davis means by ‘ruling class’ is abundantly clear: the term is just a synonym for ‘rich.’” Actually, it is one of the purposes of my “9.5 Theses” to counter the idea of class based on income, a fact that I get to in Theses 3: “’Middle class’ in this context does not indicate income level. It indicates a mode of relating to labor and means of production.” Income level is important, but it is not as useful here as a more structural definition of class: A CEO can work for a dollar, and still play his role; a peasant farmer, the classic example of the petit bourgeois, can be grindingly poor; a unionized laborer can actually make a decent living. This is the theory of class whose implications for art it is the purpose of my text to examine.
I leave it to the reader to decide which is more “abstract,” my “9.5 Theses on Art and Class,” or Afinogenov’s brilliant discovery that because some things are different they cannot possibly be at all the same. Yes, a corporate CEO has a different objective than a university president, but within the dominant logic of things, a capable university president is still lead to compete with other schools and for funding in general, which these days means trying to weaken labor standards for staff—the turn towards adjunct labor and so on—in order to maximize the funds available for expanding facilities. (If he doesn’t believe me, Afinogenov can ask the students and teachers who occupied Middlesex University in the UK, where a world-renowned philosophy department was liquidated recently for “financial reasons.”)
As an aside, it’s worth mentioning that Afinogenov’s theory about the concept-defying complexity of contemporary class relations yields one of his text’s finest moments of comedy: “a private art collector,” Afinogenov declares triumphantly, “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.” Of course! Just as likely. That must be who all those anonymous telephone bidders at Christie’s are! (But seriously, we know, sociologically, who the art collectors whose interests determine the center of the art market are; despite the dramatic expansion of wealth at the upper end of the income spectrum, they are few, and they are hedge-funders and businessmen from the US and UK, Russian oligarchs, Middle Eastern royalty, and so on. Not Marxist intellectuals.)
I should probably at this point go on to address Afinogenov’s objections to the concept of a “working class,” but as he himself notes, they are just mirror images of his objections to saying anything at all concrete about a “capitalist class.” He seems to think that he scores a lot of points by pointing out that many workers in the art world would not “generally feel any connection to anything that can be labeled an ‘art world.’” Since the point of my text is that the visual arts are not a hot bed of working-class identity — “the art world has only tangential relation with the working class” — I don’t know why he harps on this point so much. Except that for him it is really just a convenient way to advance his larger point, which is that any evidence of difference undermines all case for solidarity, anywhere and automatically.
“Materialism and Art Criticism” contains many other head-scratching passages. Let’s take a look at a few of these:
* Afinogenov states that “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.” If he is trying to draw an abstract conceptual distinction here between the concept of “ruling class” and the “capitalist” or “bourgeois” class, I certainly agree with that (which is why I phrase things the way I do: see 2.0: “Today, the ruling class, which is capitalist. . .”); one hopes that society will not always have to be run by people whose ultimate goal is profit. However, this is certainly the dominant state of things in the world today. The experiments in worker-run factories in Argentina chronicled in the book Sin Patrón are inspiring; workers’ collectives do not, however, make up the “ruling class” of Argentina.
* Afinogenov tells the reader that in my text, human creativity “acquires a kind of quantitative aspect which it then becomes the goal of political action to increase.” He then asks rhetorically, by way of dismissing this idea, “surely art is not realized better or worse in different societies?” This is an incredibly mangled interpretation of what I am saying. In the first place, I am not writing about “political action” in general, and turning art into the telos of all politics. I am specifically addressing contemporary artists’ concerns about their own situation – so, yes, obviously increasing opportunities for artists is part of the point here. More crucially, however, what I am definitely not doing is producing some aesthetic theory about what constitutes good art; I am saying that there can be situations we can imagine that are more or less supportive for working artists, and hospitable to creative expression in general. Is Afinogenov really such a relativist that he disputes that?
* “The middle class also has to get up in the morning and go to work, which Davis portentously labels a ‘contradiction’.” This is Afinogenov’s interpretation of my sketch of the “middle-class” idea of art, which I see as split between ideas of art as profession and vocation. But it’s not me who labels this a “contradiction.” It’s artists: The fact that the realities of the art market degrade artistic expression is not some dogma I am imposing from on high; it’s a constant topic of discussion for artists, critics, art lovers. (In fact, my “9.5 Theses on Art and Class” were specifically written for an art show organized by William Powhida and Jennifer Dalton responding to one such particularly egregious incident. This is just one of the ways that my text, charged with being ahistorical, is actually more specific about addressing the present than Afinogenov’s response.)
* Further dismissing my idea of any “contradiction” for professional artists, Afinogenov scornfully says that, “[t]he latent (and patently false assumption) that true art must always be politicized in a leftist direction is neither defended nor discussed.” I do not defend this idea because I do not hold it. One of the things I am trying to do in the “9.5 Theses” is to separate the question of the institutions of art from the question of specific strategies of artmaking, “leftist” or otherwise. You cannot solve the problems afflicting the contemporary visual sphere through artmaking. This is why, among other reasons, Thesis 7.9 says that “Art criticism is not political because it imposes a political framework on contemporary art, but because accurately representing art’s real situation implies understanding the dilemmas of middle-class creative labor in a capitalist world.” I don’t know where Afinogenov’s idea that I am trying to create a politicized definition of “true art” comes in, except that in his own head he is certain that any art critic talking about class must be secretly mandating some Socialist Realist ideal of art as propaganda.
The list could go on. I think, however, that now we should probably move on to the part of “Materialism and Art Criticism” where Afinogenov touches on an actual debate worth having (as opposed to all the fake debates muddying the waters here). This is his insinuation that the problem with my argument is that I don’t reckon with the reality of “postindustrial society.”
On this topic, Afinogenov states that the “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.” And later: “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.”
Now, I can understand why this would sound convincing, because it does at least seem to refer to real facts, and the theory of “postindustrial society” is trendy. However, on close inspection, it proves to be just a grab bag of impressionistic observations that don’t add up to much.
To take one example, Afinogenov cites “the decline of unions” as evidence for a new “postindustrial” phase of capitalism. Surely he must know that industrial unions did not exist in Marx’s day (the only day, according to Afinogenov, when “working class identity” had a material basis, because of “large factories”), and that unionization rates have fluctuated throughout history. They hit a particular low in the 1920s — right before their greatest explosion in the ‘30s. So, it would seem that on this score he is muddling subjective and objective factors.
The same holds true of references to “contingent and temporary labor.” These are actually classic examples of the kinds of degraded labor conditions that form the basis for common identity, not a refutation of its possibility. The 1997 UPS strike, for instance, was waged over the company’s increasing use of part-timers. The strikers’ slogan was “Part-Time America Won’t Work,” which seemed to strike a chord with the public. And they actually won their demands.
One might argue that the idea of a “postindustrial society” is simply empirically wrong. Globally, there are more people employed in “traditional” factories than ever before, and the world is more interconnected than ever before. Even in the U.S. auto industry – the poster child for the decline of the importance of manufacturing – a withering in the Rust Belt has been met with a rise in auto production in the South. And even in the narrow case of Detroit, a collapse of the Big Three was deemed systematically important enough that the U.S. government last year headed it off through a large and politically unpalatable infusion of tax-payer cash.
This being said, I disagree with the theory of “postindustrial society” not because I doubt that more people are employed today in service industries (though, as Adam Turl argues, this is partly due to do with the fact that productivity has advanced faster in manufacturing than in services), nor because I deny the fact that “traditional industry” has been displaced from the center of the national imagery by hot new technological industries (but then, constant revolutionizing of the means of production is part of the classic dynamic of capitalism). I disagree with the theory of “postindustrial society” because it is often connected, precisely as Afinogenov connects it, with a theory about how these developments “render utterly pointless” any idea of the working class, an assertion that is based on a ludicrous abstraction from the actual conditions of people working in service and technology jobs.
Obviously, different situations require different specific tactics of organizing. But why, exactly, is collective organization irrelevant to Wal-Mart workers? Wal-Mart thinks it is relevant enough that it spends millions trying to frighten its “associates,” and has even shut whole stores when workers threatened to organize. What about the computer programmers at Electronic Arts, who rebelled when they were forced to work mandatory 100-hour weeks with no overtime (look up “EA Spouse Scandal”)? The difference is that these sectors do not have the same history of self-conscious organizing that auto workers won at great cost during the labor battles of the 1930s – not that Wal-Mart or Electronic Arts represent some new species of creature that renders all concepts of common cause obsolete.
Is there any basis for saying that there is the potential to connect the interests of a worker “in a Shanghai factory and a janitor at MOMA”? In a situation of globally interconnected capitalism, yes. The guy setting the janitor’s wages is ultimately the person in charge of MoMA’s asset portfolio; that portfolio is probably invested in all kinds of companies that pad their margins by degrading labor conditions in China. The sense of a common identity or cause between such dispersed figures is, of course, not automatic or even easy; it ebbs and flows with actual events, actual successes and actual defeats. But the higher the level of sectoral struggle, the clearer common interest becomes, simply as a matter of effectiveness. It is very hard to win any lasting reform—or even reform at all—without solidarity, which in turn means thinking outside one’s immediate situation and reaching out to others who might have reason to be on your side.
The existence of common class interest is not, as Afinogenov seems to believe, some elitist notion that I am imposing on the benighted masses, or some unfounded assumption I am ascribing to an abstract consciousness. It is based on a hypothesis about the way the world actually works.
Let’s wrap up, however, with what is far and away Afinogenov’s most asinine remark, addressed to my proposed solutions, “largely consigned to thesis 8,” he sniffs (whereas he, of course, weaves constructive proposals into every one of his paragraphs; oh, wait, no, he says he doesn’t feel the need to “offer any positive alternatives at all”). Afinogenov concludes that “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?”
This is such a smug, out-of-touch remark that I can’t even read it without getting irritated. What audience does he think he is addressing here? Certainly not working artists. Government patronage in the U.S., it is true, has always been an attempt to head off discontent and corral an influential demographic, from Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration to Johnson’s National Endowment for the Arts. Does this mean that it is inherently a bad thing? No, in fact, government art support has been of enormous importance as a statement that art has some value outside of its status as a luxury good, even if artists have always had to fight to make government programs accountable to their own interests – which is precisely why my suggested ideas include the demand to make art institutions more democratic, less top-down, and more accountable [8.3]. If Afinogenov thinks that it is best for professional artists to be utterly dependent on the whims of the super-rich, he should just come out and say it, so that this veiled libertarian idiocy can be debunked in the open.
But, lastly, his comment about the “nineteenth-century European liberal, sweating into his starched cravat about the threat of the socialist masses” – as if the point of my whole text is directing readers’ attention towards the value of some abstract notion of Art which I am urging my audience to be faithful to – is really beyond the pale. The entire piece, all “9.5 Theses,” are meant to advance an argument: I attempt to show that the values held within the sphere of the visual arts are unlikely to be the basis for effective struggle, even for its own objectives. I base this claim on an analysis of the class composition of this sphere of the visual arts, and on an interpretation of how class functions in contemporary society. I am not asking people to narrow themselves to fighting for some “abstract value” of Art, but urging them to think beyond it and make common cause with others. (Thesis 9.3: “Achieving the reform objectives of thesis 8, therefore, entails that the sphere of the visual arts transcend itself and purely ‘art world’ concerns; such reforms will be best achieved by linking up with struggles outside of the sphere of the visual arts.”)
Afinogenov thinks the proposals of Thesis 8 sound like limited reforms. On that point, he and I agree – I would dearly like to see much more profound and radical social change. But if you are addressing an audience of artists and trying to win them to political organizing, you don’t get anywhere by walking into the room and declaring “Everything you’re interested in is crap! Revolution!” You try to find some concrete things you can agree on that make sense as reforms, that you can fight for together; then you try to win a picture of the strategy it would take to achieve these; and then, in solidarity, you argue with each other about the bigger picture.
If Afinogenov wants to be involved with such debates, he is surely welcome. My assignment for him, however, is to go back and read my “9.5 Theses on Art and Class” again, and then write something that actually honestly addresses the conversation they are trying to start.