Artists, Class, Revolution

Walking thoughts… ideas come to mind, walking here and there and back: to the el, the wine store, to the Fresh Grocer. Sometimes they kick off something that comes back to me. A couple days ago, I was thinking about artists—not ART, artists. About making a living (or at least, paying for art materials), in a capitalist system, when one is a confirmed, convicted, solidarity-convinced anti-capitalist. And it occurred to me, that one could look at the problems through the lens of class—that the structures and machinery of class reproduce themselves on particular strata, and this seemed particularly helpful to me in understanding what artists deal with.

The connecting point in these thoughts, was meritocracy—how, because class is not like castes, frozen across generations for all time, but somewhat permeable, it’s easy to ignore how class, in itself, is as unchanging as an South Asian caste system. That individuals are able to climb the ladder, does nothing to overthrow the range of beliefs that justify class inequalities for those who benefit from them, or to offer serious challenge to the ideologies that use those beliefs.

What beliefs? The ‘natural’ superiority of men… (white men), is way up there at the top: patriarchy and Euro-Anglo-American racism–used to excuse, what otherwise would make what capitalism, colonialism, slavery, have done, and continue to do, to the mass humanity, intolerable. What does that have to do with, meritocracy? With art? With the capitalist class system?


Capitalism creates, maintains, and perpetuates inequality. All the way back to the Adam Smith, this has been acknowledged, and because it so flies in the face of the most minimally developed sense of justice, is addressed in all the ideological variants that would defend and promote capitalism. For Adam Smith—it was the Invisible Hand, which, (grossly misused since) would correct the worst abuses, and prevent capitalism from becoming what it has, in face, become. But nothing has been more useful, or done greater violence, the social Darwinism and eugenics. Here was the perfect foil, the perfect answer, to justify belief in the inferiority of the masses, and if an individual here and there, rose up and proved themselves superior to their birth—the genetic mythology perfectly accounted for it, and supported those who would protect the superior races and individuals, while justifying their suppression, and attempts to control, or better, if they proved less than useful and docile–eradicate the untermenchen.

How perfectly the Art World recapitulates this! With its gallery to investor pipeline, a gatekeeper system, meant to identify the Elite, and (hopefully) erase from memory, if not from life itself all the outsiders! Women! Blacks! Colonials! A Patriarchal system (where are the women from how many generations past?) Where are non-Euro artists and their work, but as appropriated by the (even if late-acknowledged) Masters? There is such thing, as ART, let alone, an “Art WORLD!” … if it is not as varied and multiple as there are worlds and peoples! If it doesn’t crash through and DESTROY the gatekeepers and their system!

Those were my walking thoughts… how, I asked myself. .how is it possible, for anyone who calls THEMSELVES an artist—to accept this system? To define their idea of ‘success’ by it’s terms? To not throw themselves into the struggle to create—to IMAGINE… as artists do.. a new and better world?

The Impossibility of Realist Art

This is a comment to the post below–rebloged from Alien Ecologies.

The ‘realism’ of the artist was never that of the scientist, even when their work drew on geometrical perspective, was colored by optics, and anatomically rendered. The pictorial plane never truly “represented.” What was suggested there has always been both more and other than the named subject, even when following conventional rules and stripped of other worldly intentions (see Hubert Damisch: A Theory of /Cloud/ for a case study of development of internal resistance to pictorial realism from Correggio to Cezanne).
The moment an artist accepts what they know to be true–and let’s that realization influence what they do (even more so when meticulously following realist conventions, because the contradiction between the claim to representation, and the dependence on these conventions is all the more disturbing), there will be a desire to deal with the fact of that contradiction–in the work itself. This is not a flight from reality–material or otherwise, but commitment to it. There is no art without the “meta.’ Naive realism simply chooses to let illusion stand for the real, without calling attention to it. I would go so far as to suggest that this contradiction, the failure of representation, is the generative engine that drives change. I think that can be said for abstract, ‘non-representational’ art as well, with the fault lying, not between the claim to a ‘subject’ that exists in the material world and the pure fabrication that is the art, in the failure to entirely reduce the aesthetic object to the  picture plane, or surface form and matter of 3 dimensional works. There is just no way to exclude the viewer, who is no mere observer, but actively participates–enters the work and moves through it–creating something like a virtual reality that changes with every viewer, across cultures and spans of time.


Breaking free from the Art System


I want to post a second comment I left on CLCLARK’s blog on Luhmann’s system theory, Systems Serve only Themselves. This has been a concern of mine for some time, expressed in several previous posts.

I see several problems with art as an autopoitec system. The first being, that ‘art’ is an artificial construct. For this, it might be enough if it were more narrowly defined, say… “Euro/Anglo Art.” It’s been a project of art history to treat art as a universal—even while concentrating almost exclusively on European traditions until the assimilating of Japanese, Chinese, African and “primitive” styles by European artists forced the door open to the rest of the world. This greater inclusiveness, however, was more in the nature of colonizing the European idea of art as a universal, drawing on products, which, in their own cultures, served a wide range of activities, and were in no way part of something, neither their makers nor those  who these objects served, thought of as belonging to an autonomous system analogous to a Western idea of ‘art,’ a process not unlike the transformation imposed on European religious objects in the development of the idea (or system) of art in the West.

Also, as autopoitic systems are differentiated from their environment, but subject and responsive to outside perturbations, these responses can be absorbed in their development. With organisms, other forms can be physically absorbed and incorporated: viruses, mitochondria. The point I’d make here, is that what we mean by ‘art,’ is not just a system responding to other systems, but one—perhaps even more than any other—that has incorporated them into its DNA. The Western ‘art system’ co-evolved with capitalism, patriarchal institutions, hierarchical value coding, in such a way that these are more than external systems that use or perturb it, but are embedded in its generative structures.  This is what informs my question about finding a place as an artist—outside that system. Escape from the controlling subject: “Art.” Deteritorializaion from the master subject and its self-cloning powers. Thinking of Deleuze… escape from the root, to the rhizome!


Revolutionary Narrative


Revolutionary Narrative… what makes a story that does more than rearrange the conventions we use to reinforce our assumptions about the world? How do we find our way to stories that refuse to confirm our expectations–but rather, shatter them with the unexpected–not simply of ‘incident’… of what ‘happens,’ but of the very structures of reality?

Someone I once knew challenged the merit of Joyce’s Ulysses because it doesn’t exist as a completed whole. His argument went something like this: in the thousands of minor and some not so minor differences in the existing manuscripts and proofs, there is no way to decide what a definitive, authorial edition would look like. What we have, then—is a collective assemblage representing no single aesthetic vision, and therefore, does not exist as a unity. Setting aside arguments for how collective, even accidental productions, might come together as unified systems—which is how I would have responded at the time—the more basic, and unexamined assumption here, is the idea of unity itself—that there can ever be such a thing as a ‘whole.’

There is no such thing as ‘a’ novel. Or poem. Or story or… as a single, aesthetically (or otherwise) coherent, systematically organized structure or system, such that every part relates to every other to create a unified, and unifying whole. And it is this, not because there are as many readings as readers, or because every possible interpretive translation (all interpretations are translations) is necessarily limited, that we can never comprehend a literary production as a whole—as convincing as these arguments might be—but because there is no such thing. It does not exist. That is not to say, Joyce’s Ulysses doesn’t exist. It does. In different versions, and each version is made of parts that are always greater than any hypothetical, always inconceivable whole. I say ‘inconceivable,’ not that we can’t conceive of the possibility of an aesthetic whole—but that it will be impossible to point to what that might actually be. Sort of like the way we talk about God. Imaginable in general, but inconceivable in the particular. Or for that matter, how we think of collectives of power… of the State…which has more than a little in common with the way we think of God.

The End of the Genre Wars — Please!

The Critical Task


from January 2010

One can only hope for readers who notice the cracks you’ve left, and the light that shines through from the other side.

I’ve been thinking about the Trace. As through a cloud chamber an energized particle passes, ionizing the cloud medium, marking the path of the particle–a trace that is not itself the moving particle that made it, but its sign. So a poem, a work of art. What is left on the page, the canvas, resonating in our hearing: the Trace of the encounter that is its meaning. An absence marked, or mark of what is absent.
The critical task, both necessary and impossible, is to evoke through a second level encounter with the Trace (the Thing left to mark the Absence… the Lacanian Real ?) — the shape of the relationship between the remnant and that which is no longer there and cannot be reclaimed, renamed, recounted. A second Trace, a second Absence.

Maddie Crum reviews Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island


Satin Island
by Tom McCarthy
Knopf, $24.00
Published Feb. 17, 2015

“Last year Tom McCarthy wrote thoughtfully and passionately against the merits of Realism — that is, the mode of writing that prefers to describe events straightforwardly, under the pretense that such a style conveys truth more accurately than, say, stories about magicians or time travel. He dismisses the latest crop of Realists lauded by critics, namely Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose My Struggle is said to weave the epic and the quotidian together in the space of a single paragraph. Instead, McCarthy praises writers such as William S. Burroughs, whose photography keenly shows the approach he takes in his writing. Burroughs cuts up photos of city streets and reassembles them, forming fragmented images and explaining, “Consciousness is a cut-up; life is a cut-up.”

Read her review on the Huffington Post.

Artist and Critic: a Question of Authority: Art as an Event

searchFrom This Space, Nicholas Murray, in a comment on Steven Mitchelmore’s post,  Some thoughts on the death of criticism: (From Jacob Russell’s Barking Dog, 2007)

Is it worth scrolling back to Hegel who argued that art would gradually become displaced by philosophy as we, as it were, grew up intellectually unlike those Greeks who had to take important truths in intuitively through their art. I see this as the beginning of a road that leads to conceptual art, a progress from the sensual, tactile, visual (visceral?) enjoyment towards abstract contemplation of the idea or Geist. The critic in this scheme becomes less a servant of art, an explicator and evaluator, than a fellow-creator, whose intellectual function is equal to that of the artist. Critics who argue that authority comes from being a creator are in the rearguard of this movement. The “space” identified by this blog I take it to be one in which both kinds of mind meet and explore things together, ultimately abolishing the distinction. I am warming to the idea having been a bit of an artist-knows-best fundamentalist hitherto.

I began to reply as a comment but it kept growing, and thought it would be better as a free standing post.
I asked Nicholas: What do you mean by “together?” As one thing? Or in conjunction–in dialog, in relationship? If conceptual art marks a progress toward something like abstract contemplation of the idea, would one not expect this art, not only through its appropriation of abstract ideas, but in itself, to be a kind of philosophizing? I certainly don’t find that to be the case. Conceptual art, rather than becoming more like philosophy, seems rather to be challenging philosophy and abstract thought on its own ground, appropriating ideas to its own, quite different ends.

I think you go wrong when you view this as an issue of authority, or rather, as a competition for authority, as though there were One Sort of Authority, and artist and critic were fighting for its blessing–Jacob and Essau at the feet of Isaac. Authority as Nobadday.

The authority of philosophy is not that of the artist, and the authority of the artist, not that of philosophy (the definite article with ‘artist,’ but not for philosophy) Through art, we orient ourselves in relationship with others, individually and collectively: collectively, because I don’t think of individuals (us) as discrete units apart from our relationship with others, but as beings who build a world we can have (and know) in common, a world (like the gorilla fashioning its arboreal nest) as a humanly habitable place in space and time.

What happens to us when we read stories, stand before the images we make, listening to the ordering of time and tone in music? What do we do when we experience art? We orient ourselves in reality, by selecting out of the incomprehensible totality, what we need to paint a picture of the world, to tell the story that–does not tell us, but places us–such that we “know” where and who and what sort of creatures we are.

Neither philosophy nor science do that. They can’t give us a world to live in. They examine and explain and take apart what we believe we know and experience. They can show us the artifice of our belief–in what we are, in the fabricated world we inhabit.

Art emerges from the primal effort to live as conscious beings in a reality that knows nothing of our existence as we experience it: whatever it is that drives the brain to integrate the competing and separate systems of perception, memory and interpretation into an unshakable belief in the semblance of our Selfhood.

Science can name the parts and explain their mechanisms; Philosophy can remind us that it is a semblance, that what is real lies outside our power to possess, by either experience or knowledge. Art happens. As our sense of Selfhood happens. The difference is, that art is a happening that we make. It happens in relation to a natural world filled with the many other worlds we have made. That is, it uses whatever materials it needs to give us what we need, natural and humanly fabricated: the Romantic painter using the colors of sunset and sunrise, the conceptual artist using the ideas of philosophers and critics. And here is exactly where the critic comes in. It’s not as if the critic has only one authority, one opposed to or other than that of the artist. Rather, the critic draws on multiple authorities. He examines, disassembles, names the parts–so we can better appreciate the artifice, the art that went into the making. But he also–if he is a good critic, an honest critic, enters into what happens, into the happening, and draws on that in what he writes. In this, in his drawing on what happens, he is like the artist, is an artist, and at the same time, remains other, secured to a way of knowing that frees us from the illusions we cannot help but make and need, lest we vanish into our own dreams, even as the subversive power of art frees us from the chains of knowing.