Is there a Capitalist Aesthetics?

In reading some of the essays and criticism on HYPERALERGIC, an idea began to form…  don’t know where to begin with it. I mean, the idea that there is an aesthetic force to capitalism that has been internalized, infusing and corrupting the machinery that guides artistic vision & produces art. I mean something more and other than marketing–how the utterly corrupted gallery to investor pipeline determines what and who will be recognized and rewarded, and who and what will be rejected. Yes, that’s a part of it–in as much as artists are influenced by their belief that this is the, or even ‘a,’ measure of success; I’m thinking of something deeper, placing capitalism in the operational place in the visionary machinery occupied by kitsch for Clement Greenberg. There was clearly something I was reacting to in Greenberg—his capitalist historicism–the idea of progress in art and how it serves to first exploit and than erase everything and everyone outside the privileged circle.

I’ll have to give this more thought.

4 thoughts on “Is there a Capitalist Aesthetics?

  1. In thinking about this subject, to give it fair treatment you’re going to have to confront the fact that art is inherently a Capital good- a good of the second order. It doesn’t matter who produces or why it is produced, it’s going to be a capital production. It is itself a product of deferred and excess goods not capable of first order consumption. A truly Marxian “art” production, for example, could be argued to be impossible in light of the “mud pie” question.

    Creation of art is not possible to extricate from some process of capital production and consumption, regardless of what broader label you attempt to place upon it. That is to say, a deferral of goods and labor is inherently necessary to create art. Your thesis faces a prima facie epistemic crisis without more precise definitions of “capitalism” and the antonyms you set it against. For example, a State or pseudo-State entity that orders the production of a capital good is no less capitalist than a “Capitalist,” and is ruled by the same laws of scarcity, demand, and excess production. Even when the good is held in trust for communal consumption, it is a capitalistic venture. A State Capitalist venture, but capitalist no less. Even when the good is sold or exchanged at a loss of principal value conscientiously, it is capitalistic- capitalist venture is often unprofitable.

    In short, I think this shall be a challenging topic and I hope it doesn’t drive you mad in the end.


  2. Thank you for this interesting and thoughtful comment, though my concern here was with aesthetics, not with art as a product. The material object conveys and presents the art, but is not identical with it and does not exhaust it–which is how aesthetic value (or meaning) alters as it crosses borders of time and culture. And not all art has a material body, or endures beyond its immediate expression. The question I was asking myself was whether there could be an aesthetic that was antithetical to commodification, even though its material form can always be appropriated and exchanged. Human bodies, too, can become objects of ownership and exchange. We call that slavery. But the value and Being of the individual is not exhausted in their status as slave-object, and does not, in fact, even exist–other than for its use and exchange value. You seem to be treating art as slave dealers deal with the persons they buy, sell and put to use.


  3. I fail to see how one could make an adequate account of the intersection of aesthetics and a system of production/distribution and have it remain a solely aesthetic consideration. Indeed, by the time you’ve asked of material or phenomenon whether it can resist commodification, you’re well outside your stated purview and into questions of ontology. It seems obvious that you should have to balance aesthetic *and* economic considerations in such an undertaking.

    There will be epistemic questions about your inquiry into the topic whether you like them or not. You still must account for what is meant by “capitalist” and how do we know what is capitalist versus non-capitalist, how we could know of an aesthetic object whether it is pre- or post-capitalist, how we could know of an object that consumes either labor and/or goods that it might transcend observable systems of labor/goods application and production, among scores of others. Reifying your work into a narrower channel does nothing to genuinely negate this.

    I posit the questions in the first place because a solid theory of Capitalist Aesthetics could potentially be the greatest aesthetic work of the century, and I’d love to see it succeed. I’ve appreciable thought into the matter myself, though I have too many other things to work on anymore. Given that you see it fit to make tenuous, flimsy ad hominem attacks when posed with extremely basic considerations makes me think you are not likely to be the one to produce such a theory, however.


  4. I made no ad hominem attacks. If you’re referring to what I said about slavery, this was directed at no one, but was a comparison: the slave as economic object to slave as person: art as economic object to its aesthetic character—that which makes it, art.

    There is no such thing as an aesthetic object, and as I said—not all art works are material, or have endurance such that they could function as economic object.

    I have no interest in a capitalist aesthetics—in an anti-capitalist aesthetics, perhaps. In fact, my post was prompted by my sense that much of what passes as art, is infected by a capitalist aesthetics, a condition I find lamentable.

    I am not a theorist. I am a working artist, an anarchist, and anti-capitalist activist—but a working artist, first. I say, working artist, because it is the doing that make art, and for an artist, ‘art’ is a verb, and not a noun.

    If I seem disinclined to treat your interests seriously, I see no sign you recognize mine as having any existence outside of your erasure of them, subsuming them to a state… like that of slave to person—that treats them only as economic objects.

    I appreciate your comments and your thoughts, though they are outside of my concerns.


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