A Letter to Goldsmiths art students on capitalism, art and pseudo-critique

Dear Goldsmiths Art Students,

I attended your MFA show two nights ago. I apologise to an extent: with so many artworks on display it was difficult to digest any of them. That situation was exacerbated by the fact that so few of the works seemed to have it in them to behave destructively towards the others. Maybe this is where I can begin: that the type of co-operation between artworks, their intellectual co-ordination, is something I find troubling. It didn’t seem to me to be the co-operation of a school thinking together, but instead the co-ordination of the school uniform, of a discipline that had been so fully internalised that all of the artworks, under its authority, might comfortably coalesce. That made those artworks difficult to be with.

I want to write to you about a single gesture that was performed by a great majority of the artworks in the show (although there were some important exceptions). It is a gesture that claims to determine a relation between artworks and “capitalism”. It is of no surprise that under the contemporary situation of global capital, undergoing its most profound crisis in eighty years – creating conditions not only of mass destitution but also of mass resistance and protest – that the relation between art and capital would present itself more explicitly in the new works of art than has been the case in the last decades. But the expression of this relation of art and capital in the work displayed at your show was not only predictable, but questionable on both political and aesthetic grounds. The gesture that I refer to is that of artworks that attempt to parody capitalism, and in this parody hope to effect a critical irony through the apparent distance between the artwork (and its social situation) and the forms of commodity or capital that it parodies. In this gesture the artwork proclaims a radicalism, a dissatisfaction with the actually existing. It proclaims that the object of this dissatisfaction is “capitalism”. The modes of making explicit the structure of parody are plural: some take up the bathetic disjunction through a fully instrumental comparison with some hazy far-away classicism or humanism; others exaggerate the shoddiness of capital’s products; others rely on a revelatory mode whereby it is claimed something of capital’s seamy underbelly is exposed; while others are just bits of fixed capital – most often employing the high technologies of marketing – transposed into the gallery-space. But the gesture of this parody common to all of them will, I imagine, be familiar to you.

That mention of marketing is important, because the attack that each of these artworks claims to make on capital is against the semblance-character (Scheincharakter) of its products. Or to put it in a trendier way, the claim is that the artwork performs, through this ironising parody, a critique of capitalist spectacle. But maybe before we jump wholeheartedly into claiming that level of actual critique for those artworks, we might examine what is actually going on in them a little more carefully. This gesture, as I understand it, stands upon its lofty artistic plinth, high above the world of capital, labour and production, in order to come to some conclusions: “the products of capitalism are a bit rubbish or glitchy” or “the activities that capitalism make humans perform are a bit stupid and pointless.” or “capitalism makes images everywhere an there’s something a bit fake about them.” What seemed strange to me, or rather, disconcerting and upsetting, was the refusal of any of these works that made this gesture to follow it through: there was in each an absolute resistance to making the dialectical leap (or rather a dialectical pigeon-step as a friend commented to me) into identifying that all of this rubbish that capitalism makes is composed finely of human lives forced by capitalism into endless labour and misery until death. There is no recognition that all of that capitalist trash contains within it the relentless destruction of all that each of us holds closest to us and loves most dearly. There is no understanding that the violence of the abstractions that capitalism imposes on humanity are materially particular, intervening in the particularities of our lives. To refuse to engage with that particularity is, it seems to me, to stand in solidarity with the forces of capital.  The question of what it would mean for the artwork to attempt such an expression of the destruction of things and people loved, the historical weight of that process, is never asked; the self-satisfaction of being dissatisfied with commodities is instead transformed itself into the internal harmony of the artwork. Without accounting for these antagonisms there is no tension, no dissonance. The gesture is a thinning out of the artwork such that they may congregate as a marquetry of veneers, but becoming a veneer and pointing to the thinness of life today shifts into the mere declamation that this is how the world is.

The pseudo-critical stance of these artworks makes a mistake in terms of the object of its critique: again and again, what is called into question is “capitalism”, which is taken to be some conceptual whole, plucked from the heaven of ideas, and imported directly into the artwork as an object of ridicule. The type of capitalism that is the object of critique is seemingly a wholly abstract thing. Capitalism exists for these artworks not as an historical process, a dynamic governing relations between people, and between people and nature, but instead merely as a critical concept, pristine from the theory tool-box. It is not the capitalism that might be known from the experience of exploitation, the submission of humans to the laws of value. It isn’t a capitalism that holds within it technical determinations, not one that leaves historical traces of the destruction it wrought, not one that weighs more heavily on us with that every life it crushed. Instead, it is a “capitalism” borrowed from the pages of the latest offerings of Semiotext(e) or ZeroBooks.  Those artworks wilfully mistake the abstractions performed by capitalism – the violent processing of human activity into value – for a wholly abstract capitalism. It is a convenient slippage as it preserves the height of that plinth from which the judgment of capitalism might be made; critique, where it claims to exist in these artworks, need not sully itself in the muck of the billions of corpses, the works need not work to empathise with or express the visceral human suffering of those subjected to labour until they die because their “critique” can be made from a comfortable distance and the concept of capitalism which becomes the object of the critique never did include all of that death and suffering. It is here that these artworks find their true affinity with capitalism: all of that non-identical stuff, the suffering worthless and silenced that could never be sold, all the disjecta membra of humanity need never return. The concept of capitalism for these artworks is like a machine that doesn’t quite work: why it doesn’t work and how it came to be is not of concern.  Furthermore, these artworks apparently need not be reflexive, for their elevated position guarantees that really they’re not that involved at all – that they’re just social commentary (the old doctrine of l’art pour l’art comes in handy like the final defiant cry of the old aristocrat Don Juan that he is not responsible before being sucked into hell.) These artworks refuse to recognise the labour congealed in them; work is not something to be suffered, but instead just a daft extravagance. Work is always external to them, like it is for all workers brutally alienated into compliance.

These artworks see capital with the eye of a luxury consumer. They refuse to acknowledge necessity under capitalism. “Capitalism” for them is a bad choice, not something that you’re is compelled to reproduce because you’re hungry. It complains about capitalism just as it might about a scratched DVD being delivered from Amazon, only to cling to the scratch because at least it proves the thesis, just as the consumer clings to evidence in order to validate an insurance claim. But just like all insurance, all that is secured is the continuance of the present state of things. Critique is exchanged for dissatisfaction. For these works, capitalism would be fine if it worked better. Precisely because of this feeling that capitalism might work better, each of these works shies from expressing anything of the most forceful antagonisms that drive capitalist history; none of them hold within themselves the promise of anything different or other to capitalism, but instead rest happily on the maxim of progressive improvement and expediency.

The insurance-structure of these artworks might allow us to begin to place them in a historical contour that has brought us to their situation. The history of art in the late 19th and early 20th century, from  the articulations of an art that could create wholly new totalities of semblance out of the developments of industrial capitalism (one thinks, for example, of Wagner), through to the modernist rejection of semblance in artworks as a resistance to appearing as the commodity world is significant here: those strategies of the modernists – fragmentation and the refusal of completion, tension without resolution, eruptions of explicit and arbitrary violence, the regression to the childish or animalistic – all of these intended towards the abolition of the way things are. Those artworks never did abolish the world, that is, their promises never fulfilled, but that they could have is felt in complacency with which Kafka or Tzara is read today, or in the sponsorship on the next Klee exhibition. It is in the late 20th century return to an art whose subject is the semblance-character of commodities  that your artworks exist. Your works claim to make that same gesture of fragmentation or brokenness that the modernists made, somehow without carrying the historical weight their work did: every broken body for you can be compared to a technical glitch, as though it weren’t inevitable, constantly reproduced under compulsion. Instead  it is analogous to accidental clinamen of the machine that is grotesque not because of what it does but because it doesn’t do it well enough.  Every broken thing here, every rift and crevice, indigent and distorted (as it appears every day by the illuminated on the screen of an ipad) carries no longer the potential to break everything, but instead carries the worldly insurance that one day everything will be fixed. If the modernists truly attempted to abolish the semblance-character inherent to the capitalism of their time, your artworks calculate as actuaries and hedge against the moment that this might actually happen. That modernist fragmentation has become alien to your work: you find it in the commodity world (of which your artworks claim not to be a part) in order to import it into your artworks which, in their lofty standpoints of critique take the form of truly complete, perfect, non-fragmentary commodities.

I might try to put this  another way: Adorno once wrote that “the theological heritage of art is the secularisation of revelation, which defines the ideal and limit of every work. The contamination of art with revelation would amount to the unreflective repetition of its fetish character on the level of theory. The eradication of every trace of revelation from art would, however, degrade it to the undifferentiated repetition of the status quo.” Your work, or at least this gesture in your work, refuses to engage in this antagonism. Instead, your artworks perform something like a false revelation (as I have suggested earlier, the revelation not that capitalism is built on the continuation of a history of immeasurable human suffering, but just  that its commodities just don’t work very well.) In this false revelation – and at times it seems like a self-consciously, cynically planted false revelation – the faulty fetish-character of the commodity is exchanged for the perfect fetish-character of the artwork; the status quo is repeated, because the claim made by the artworks that they stand outside or above that status quo in order to repeat it with a haughty sneer is entirely false. I have an image from Ernst Bloch’s The Spirit of Utopia in my head (a really interesting book on many of these questions, whose title is currently being ripped off for some idiotic show at The Whitechapel Gallery) of the “dance around the golden calf, or better, just the calf-skin with nothing underneath.” Your artworks, in their avoidance of having any interiority, any formal-immanent dynamic that would be required to express anything of the antagonisms of the world in which they must reside, offer a claim to truth in the revelation that the artwork is a better commodity than the commodity itself.

These artworks therefore do not invite interpretation. Instead, they invite their audience to stand with them, for a moment, on that plinth and to share in bemoan the current state of the commodity-world. Their gesture of making themselves thin, of claiming no internal or formal dynamic, demands that we believe for a moment that this is actually what capitalism is like, and that beneath its appearance is not a set of antagonisms in which humans are engaged but instead an abyssal nothing.  The success of these artworks would be the inculcation of smugness, and the moment of release when in an instant the viewer claims non-complicity with capitalism. It is not unnoticed that the claim of non-complicity is identical the manoeuvre performed by capitalists every day: they are just business people and managers who claim even in maintaining the most detestable conditions for their workers that they are doing them a favour, doing them some good by providing them with a job. But where that manoeuvre wears thin, this bourgeoisie might find solace in your art.

Perhaps you disagree with my point of view – I can understand that you might be entirely resigned to the notion that capitalism will never be overcome. Maybe you have moved beyond this resignation into a full-blown cynicism. The impression you as artists give is often that everything has already been recuperated, that all radicalism is produced broken, that all resistance is already integrated into the capitalist whole. Your works often make the claim of regretting this, but it is a false claim insofar as it is a process to which they happily contribute. Clearly, few of you are actually interested in a critique of capitalism (but a pseudo-critique that sells will have to do), but for those of us who care about art, for those of us who think that art’s critical capacities have not been exhausted and extinguished, for those of us for whom the abolition of capitalism is not a choice but a necessity, you are the enemy. 

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