Wednesday, August 7, 2013

In Search of Creative Dark Matter

“9.5 Thesis on Art and Class,” by Ben Davis, 2013.

Davis is an activist New York visual arts critic who has been involved in social movements for about a decade. He’s also a rigorous and knowledgeable art critic who has absorbed the best elements of Marx and later, Trotsky.  The first point, 1.0, of his ‘thesis” on the visual arts is:  Class is an issue of fundamental importance to art.”  And so it goes from there.  He deconstructs the various strands of ostensibly edgy and progressive art theories and practice – anarchist, utopian, Frankfort school, ‘outsider’ art, street art, graffiti, Situationist theories and post-modernism, to arrive at a realistic and progressive position that still reveres quality art, but understands that it can be combined with a political movement to really change society.  In other words, he has not yet given up.

One of Davis’ fundamental points is that actual artists occupy a position in the class structure in the ‘middle’ class – i.e. between capital and labor. He bases this on, not the amount of money they earn, which is always a crude and inaccurate measure of class position – but their control over their artistic work.  In that, they are, as the economic expression goes, ‘independent contractors’ or small businessmen – setting their own hours, topics, style, audience, materials, location, and every other input into the creative process.  In this they are not working-class, as workers lives are for the most part strictly controlled by the circumstances of their job and their bosses, but more like free-lancers.   Artists attempt to attract buyers through galleries, museums, universities, art shows, foundations, grants and corporate or non-profit involvement.  

While the vast majority of artists also work other jobs to survive (the heralded ‘day job’) – they still ultimately see themselves and their position as middle-class.  And of course, this analysis can be easily transferred to the lives of other artists, like actors or writers, photographers or film-makers.  Davis pooh-poohs the actual economic impact of ‘creative economy’ enclaves, (see review of North East Minneapolis art crawl, “The Minneapolis Spectacle,” below) and also distinguishes ‘creative’ people that work for corporations from actual artists. As such, Davis never lets the real material foundation of the ‘art world’ hide under some kind of academic or social fantasy, and this grounds the book.  It should be required reading for all art students.

Davis has some fascinating figures on the amount of artists in Florence during the Renaissance – only 30; the amount in Paris and France in 1780 - 500 entered a gallery competition then; in 1860 the number entering the same competition was 5,000.  Now there is such a surfeit of art MFA’s in the U.S. that a new gallery PHD has been created to allow one to ‘stand above the crowd.”  As this shows, art is no longer the province of the isolated painter who taught himself or learned from a ‘master’ but is another product of academe, ‘bought’ by tens of thousands of students. “Art” has become a more mass phenomenon in numbers – but not in remuneration.  However, these numbers have not changed the class character of the people who create most art, or their subjects or involvement, and this is one of Davis’ points.

In one chapter he addresses the gender disparities in New York shows, which now run less than 20% female artists, while more than 50% of art graduates are female.  Could it be that most art buyers are men?  Could it be that female artists are dealing with the same counter-revolutionary backlash that exists in the rest of society on abortion rights, rape and employment? (See commentary on ‘Rape, Really? below”)

In the process of his polemics, one of his sweetest jabs is at the Situationist International based in Paris, led by Guy DuBord.  (Dubord’s book, “Society of the Spectacle,” reviewed below). They advocated a ‘revolutionary’ approach to art and culture.  A group that called itself the ‘society of equals’ after the French Jacobins was actually a personality cult around DuBord, which threw people out on the flimsiest of pretences.  It never amounted to more than 70 people.  As Davis points out, in 1968 they spent more time attacking John Luc Goddard than DeGaulle. As a group that substituted artistic intellectualism for the class struggle, they couldn’t be beat, but they are a present inspiration for various anarchist art collectives.  And they mirror many present attempts at ‘revolutionary’ art.

Davis does, like many others, describe the present ‘art market’ as dominated by billionaires, Russian oligarchs, oil sheiks, hedge fund managers, corporations and a handful of extremely wealthy auction houses, museums and galleries.  As you can see, these institutions cannot provide a democratic or progressive content to art, no matter their statements to the contrary about the ‘openness’ of the art world.  Nor, by their very nature, can they decrease inequality in the art business.  Because of this, Davis does not see gaining access to the ‘art market’ as the key question – it is impossible in the present set-up.  Ultimately, the key question is what class is involved in the art, how is it involved, and how it connects with the general population and social movements.  And ultimately, presumably, how it ends the ‘market’ in art.

He does not address the issue of the government hiring people to paint, similar to what happened in the workers states or during the Depression in the U.S. This would indeed end the art market, intellectual property and instead provide thousands of artists a decent living.

Nor does Davis address Latino muralism, Soviet art or Soviet Constructivism (see review of MORA show, “Soviet Women,” below), older styles like surrealism (see review of Walker show, “Frida Kahlo,” below), various world-artists or what visual art IS useful and emancipatory.  He picks isolated artists here or there, though he praises some feminist and gay art from the near past. As a 'school,' he does highlight ‘Tropicale’ in 1960s Brazil as one of the styles he sees as significant.  This was a style of painting, later spreading into other disciplines, that reacted against the 1964 military coup and dictatorship in Brazil.  Yet that is far in the past.

Davis knows of the New York-centric nature of his work, and that it might limit his understanding.  In this book, his ‘inside-the-art-beltway’ approach is somewhat limiting and off-putting, as nearly all of his examples come from New York galleries and New York artists.  However, this has an advantage, because New York is where the bourgeoisie lives.  The Guardian printed a column August 7, 2013 titled “New York Still Capital of Art World Cool,” waxing ecstatic on how New York has again become the center of world art once again, by combining popular culture figures like Jay-Z and Lady Gaga with …  well, its not quite clear.  In that essay, Jonathan Jones writes, “To see a Mark Rothko painting at New York's Museum of Modern Art and then walk the streets outside is to experience a perfect match of art and life.”  Rothko died in 1970, so ‘modern’ art evidently is really not very modern.  Nor is ‘walking the streets of New York” the closest thing to ‘life’ unless you don’t get around much.

My contention is that American art is almost dead, which is why Davis’ book is so difficult.  His thesis is that movements influence artists, and if movements are at a low ebb - at least in the U.S. – then ‘art’ in the U.S. will be at a low ebb.  At most, art in the U.S. is either expert decoration or pointless shock.  Many young artists were drawn to the Occupy movement, but its life was so short that a 'scene' could not fully develop.  Even his thin references to Trotsky’s, “Art and Revolution,” “Literature and Revolution” and “Problems of Everyday Life” are sketchy.  Really, Davis seems to have only a glancing acquaintance with working-class movements, but then, things like that can change. 

The influences from world movements or ‘painterly’ societies like Cuba, central Europe, Latin America and other peripheries could revive working-class and progressive visual art here in the U.S. - IF some kind of working-class mass movement develops.  In the U.S., working class Latino or black artists still exist, but only the edges.  Most working-class people have been barred from the ‘art world’ and given their lack of time and inculcated desires, cannot devote the necessary energy or skills to painting, let alone achieving acceptance from upscale New York gate-keepers.   Painting in the U.S. has also been ghettoized as an upper-middle class preoccupation, so museum attendance is actually down among working-class people.  This is no surprise.  

Attempts to break out of this ghetto are usually not successful.  “Banksy,” the anarchist street artist, who’s work now goes for millions, is the exception.  Davis points out that the financial ‘blue chip’ styles of impressionism, the “Old Masters” and slightly recent artists like Warhol are now so rare that ‘contemporary art’ is now the up and coming ‘speculative stock’ of the art world.  And Banksy figures in this.  The rest of the artists?  Not so much.  Indeed, the main outlet for most artists seems to be neighborhood ‘art crawls,’ not Sotheby auctions in New York. 

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
August 7, 2013

Addendum:  Banksy is now in 'residency' in New York City.  One of the political theater events he has staged is this:  In the middle week of October, Banksy went to Central Park and set up on the sidewalk, anonymously selling his works for $60.  He made about $400+ that day, not bad for a sidewalk artist.  However his normal work sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Yet no one recognized who he was, or recognized the art.  Thomas Frank made the same point this week.  The art establishment decides what is valuable art, not the people.  And that art is then primarily determined and 'marked' by its price.

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