After 15 years of writing about art and artists, I feel comfortable concluding that there is virtually no overlap between the worlds of art and activism. As a group, artists are fiercely political people. You are very likely to hear an artist decry multinational corporatism, violations of workers' rights, prison conditions, or any of a parade of classic liberal causes; you are precisely as unlikely to run into those same artists at the street march or meeting organized to fight for those same causes. The "art world" as it exists now is a massive ball of unused and misused political energy.
Which is batshit.
Everybody, gather around. Please read Ben Davis's new book. Okay—if you already know that you love capitalism forever, you can skip it. But everybody else. It's just come out, it's called 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, and Davis is a New York–based art critic and political activist who's originally from Seattle.
A few days ago, the four leading mayoral candidates in Seattle came into the offices of The Stranger to talk about their plans. Every one of them called this city, and by extension themselves, "progressive." This self-image is something to love and to hate about Seattle—its "progressiveness" can be held as a standard, unlike in cities where conservatism is out in the open, but assuming that "progressivism" is already in the soil also leads to laziness and denial ("Racist? Moi?"). The mind of Ben Davis—and by extension, the book 9.5 Theses on Art and Class—is one of the most genuinely progressive things to emerge from Seattle in years.
He must have written the book from a place of conflict within himself, and that's the only essay missing from this collection: the story of what it has been like to conduct his two lives, one ensconced in the highest echelons of Fine Art, the other fighting as a street Marxist. Then again, the problems he coolly identifies are structural, not personal. His analysis is reminiscent of the larger shift in social-justice thought, from targeting individual bigotry toward, instead, understanding how systems carry out bias like machines that require no operators, rendering bigotry invisible if you're looking for it in the old places.
Art breaks my heart in this respect, because creative people effectively self-exile out of any movements that aren't aesthetic. And it's not their fault. In this society, art is always, by definition, "isolate[ed]... from the practical problems of the moment," Davis explains, describing how this applies even when it's Guernica, even when it's revolution-minded avant-gardists like Vladimir Tatlin, even when artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla are thrilled to get an antimilitaristic installation—including an actual tank—into the 2011 Venice Biennale as the American representative, with support from the US State Department. Davis points out that this maneuver was not, in fact, a triumph for art but for the savvy Obama administration, because the art "ma[de] the superpower seem like a champion of tolerance at a time that it was bleeding credibility into the sands of Afghanistan." Art is full of pseudosubversive moments like this. WTF?
"Worshiping artistic ambiguity" is one reason Davis proposes for why. In contemporary art, anything that smells of agitprop is reproached for representing brute force, the kind you see in a warmongering state department or a top-down corporation. This has made contemporary art into a cult of ambiguity and multiple meanings; approaching a clear idea is seen as the worst kind of event horizon. But as Davis notes, state departments and corporations also use ambiguity, misdirection, and multiple meanings to control, confuse, and manipulate people. Indirectness is not the sole province of the creative left.
It's fun to watch Davis chiffonade what's trendy, from the Situationists (ugh, ugh, ugh) to another of contemporary art's cultish buzzwords: collaboration. As unfashionable as it sounds, art is still predicated on individualized contributions "expressed through a specific style of craftsmanship or as an original intellectual program," Davis writes. He's sympathetic to the dilemmas of artists.
While Davis is clearly having fun slicing up contradictions and revealing the hypocrisies papering over them, he doesn't get in the way of his ideas. He's the rare critic who enjoys ideas more than being right. The great twist is that he is right, and in big but precise ways that he articulates accessibly, writing both for art friends and organizing comrades. Refreshing doesn't begin to describe it. With his scalpel, he goes at the problem of contemporary art's "general esoteric character" and its predominant status as a luxury good, calling for universal art education and a workforce of artists-as-teachers. He addresses DIY, the Arab Spring, the war on terror, and Occupy, and he stays urgently on target. About the products and potential of hipster aesthetics, he writes, "Whether a characteristically ironic sense of self gets articulated in a political direction or turns into a kind of consumerist nihilism depends on what kinds of social movements are there for it to intersect." His opinionizing is essentially pragmatic.
The fact is that, in a capitalist society, artists must prize individual expression—it's what distinguishes them from nonartists (designers, etc., who work for other people and are on the whole paid better to do so). Prizing their originality and uniqueness, plus believing in the inherent rightness of ambiguity, artists are set up not to identify with the facelessness and directness of street-level struggle.
It would be a Galilean-level shift, Davis argues, to view artists as middle-class rather than working-class. Class is not about how much money you have, it's about how you relate to your labor, he explains. If art's conflicted middle position were understood, we might also perceive the difference between artists, defined by their freedom, and laborers, with the powerful unity that's gained in the shared experience of being alienated from their labor.
With the understanding that art will have to serve the working-class rather than be the working-class perhaps comes a more realistic sense of what art can do. Let's do away with, Davis writes, "the bad art-theory habit of looking for a 'political aesthetic,' of judging an artwork's righteousness in philosophical or formal terms, divorced from its significance to what is happening in the world," Davis writes. "Not even the most committed art practice can, on its own, be a substitute for the simple act of being politically involved, as an organizer and an activist."
We should hold town halls on this book.