Poetic License, or, Stay Back Injustice, I Have Art And I Am Not Afraid to Use It

June 22, 2011

Art is not a mirror to reflect the world, but a hammer with which to shape it. (Vladimir Mayakovsky in Daintith et. al. 28)

Nearly a century after Mayakovsky’s death, when every outrage against bourgeois mores can now be seen at the Tate Gallery, such a sentiment seems more suited for a Quote of The Day calendar than a serious radical manifesto. Art is a hammer alright, a hammer, a box of nails, a six-piece drill set, and a lovely designer display case, all for $29.95 (though most likely $2,995). The very element that is supposed to give art its critical capacity – its irreducibility to political-economic functionalism – is the very thing that actually augments commodification. Art is the commodity par excellence for the very reason that its commodity status is explicitly denied at every turn a fact that is key to understanding whether art can have any real bearing on social change.

But surely the issue of commodification is an esoteric Marxist parlour game of no concern to artists involved in real politics? Those who prosecute the cause of ‘critical art’ usually demand an end to theorrhoeic navel-gazing and the focussing of attention on ‘issues’, ‘cos that’s how shit gets done. While the worst excesses of political reductionism have dwindled to a few isolated outposts there still remains in our common sense understanding of art a notion of some direct circuit between the perceived intent of the artist and the political outcome of the work. This is reflected in the rhetoric of art criticism where a particular work will be claimed to do this or not succeed in doing that as if it were a circuit board. To whatever degree this assumption is held it leaves the only critical questions of art worth asking as those relating to the responsibility of the artist, form vs. content, and censorship. Concomitant with this view is an equally limited notion of the critical effect of art, in other words what ‘social change’ amounts to. Early twentieth-century manifestos, such as those of Dada and Surrealism, aspired to total social revolution. By contrast contemporary evocations of art resistance have tended, on the one hand, to diminish to a more manageable, ‘realistic’ size (‘change of government’, ‘policy x’, ‘issue y’, or even just ‘good intentions’) and, on the other, ballooned to a level amorphous enough to remove the complication of ‘realisation’ compromising the direct circuit (‘ways of thinking’, ‘paradigms’, ‘like, attitudes ‘n stuff’ etc.).

Yet this taken-for-granted circuit is underpinned, indeed powered, by the enigma of expressive/sensory contingency. In fact this irreducibility to rationalism is the very conceptual core of art, the sacred subjective domain of bourgeois identity. Despite the distance activist artists often put between themselves and obscurantist high theory both share the notion of art as some mystical spirit, whether that spirit is the ineffable remainder of différance or merely the indeterminacy of creative self-expression[i]. It is this unstable quality of art, its excess of meaning, which is its critical charge; its ability to defy the bean counters and administrators who control and oppress through rationalising the world into predictable, interchangeable units.

It is this surplus that marks art out against the commodity. Whether as a general symptom of crass utilitarianism or, more particularly, as the cornerstone of capitalist alienation, the commodity is usually portrayed as the arch-nemesis of art; art is subjective, creative, spontaneous and life-affirming; commodities are objective, impersonal, unimaginative, administered, and lifeless. The avowed belief in this binary opposition was in fact crucial to the very genesis of both modern aesthetics and economics. Trying to reconcile the subjective ‘use value’ of a commodity with its objective ‘exchange value’ Adam Smith, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, confronted the dilemma that the value of useful things, like water, was often not represented in the objective price, whereas ostensibly useless things, like gems and diamonds, had a paradoxically high exchange value. To reconcile this Smith claimed that there must be an aesthetic utility in commodities that had no real use value yet still exhibited high exchange value. This aesthetic utility meant that value could be explained in terms of beauty and ‘fitness of use’ rather than use per se. Yet this just made the question of value even more vague and amorphous and in his subsequent work more (in)famous, The Wealth of Nations, Smith jettisoned the enigmas of use and beauty altogether (Guillory 1993: 301-317). The vagaries of subjective, autonomous desire, though valuable to bourgeois ideology, threatened the scientific certitude of economics. To solve this problem use value was simply collapsed into exchange value; thus was modern economics born from a faith that price (i.e. exchange value) is all that matters when it comes to questions of economic value, regardless of the odd ‘adjustment’/economic crisis that exposes the gap between use and exchange value[ii]. At the same time questions of taste, beauty and sensibility were quarantined from economics within the discourse of art and aesthetics.

Seemingly protected from any economic functionalism, art carried, and still carries, the hopes of radical modernity because it was the locus of revolutionary bourgeois subjectivity a, “special domain of creativity, spontaneity, and purity, a realm of refined sensibility and expressive ‘genius’.” (Clifford 1988: 23) This was especially the case as bourgeois ‘objectivity’ – science, rationalism, technology – not only failed to live up to these goals but became their very enemy; attacking subjectivity on the slab, factory floor, laboratory and bureaucratic spreadsheet. The investment in art as the keeper of the revolutionary flame has only increased as attempts to realise social change through rationalism have fallen into Weber’s ‘iron cage’, manifest in gulags and Sisyphean policy committees. For those looking to social change away from the compromise (and indeed negation) of rationalism it is not surprising that art provides inspiration, example and even the central motif for this search.

While Kantian philosophy emphasises the enigmatic largesse of art as critical yet coexistent with rationalism[iii] Nietzschean-inspired theory depicts this ‘irrational’ largesse as an end in itself; it is the critique of reason that is the only worthwhile critical aim, not the liberal resistance of one rationalism over another[iv]. In this battle over oppressive logos art is the weapon of choice. Spontaneity of expression is reconfigured as a fundamental indeterminacy of meaning, evoked not just as analogous to art (particularly in its avant-garde forms) but entwined within its products and genius-creators. It is an indeterminacy which is oppositional, not to just particular rulers, governments or even capitalism, but turgid rationality itself.

In this vein the central focus of philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s The Man Without Content is what he terms the ‘Uncanny Terror’ of art: the shock of unclosable, excessive signification, ‘re-presentation’ that can never safely be anchored to, and indeed mocks, secure identity with ‘presentation’. It is an evocative rendering of the radical, chaotic power of art to continually push beyond the atrophy of mere semblance. Unfortunately it largely relies on classical and medieval ruling-class aversion to what the pre-modern world called mimesis not art: Scipio Nascia’s razing of Roman theatres, the prohibition against musical innovation by medieval bishops and Plato’s fear of poetic civil disorder (Agamben 1999 [1994]: 3). Agamben (ibid.: 4) himself admits that,

Plato, and Greek classical antiquity in general, had a very different experience of art, an experience having little to do with disinterest and aesthetic enjoyment.

This is not the only difference and it is far from a pedantic distinction, as shall be shown later.

In truth Agamben’s ‘artistic terrorists’ lie in the modernist camp, far removed from the ancients. His evidence comes primarily from the, shall we say, slightly self-promotional ruminations of the modernists themselves:

The idea that extreme risk is implicit in the artist’s activity begins to gain currency, almost as though – so thought Baudelaire – it were a sort of duel to the death…“where the artist cries out in fright before being defeated” (ibid.: 5).

Wow, well if self-aggrandising portraits of tragic heroism aren’t enough evidence of the pants-soiling terror of art I don’t know what is.

As further evidence Agamben invokes the ‘uselessness’ of the Dadaist/Pop art object, what he (ibid.: 67) calls its ‘availability-toward-nothingness’, the overflow of signification begins to erode the foundations of the modern division of what constitutes ‘productive activity’. By destabilising the double status of mundane commodities and refined art works Agamben foresees that avant-garde ‘ready-mades’ will make it possible to, “exit the swamp of aesthetics and technics and restore to the poetic status of man on earth its original dimension.” (ibid.) The status of women notwithstanding this aim to recover production as poiesis – bringing-into-being as opposed to praxis as the realisation of an almighty will – is problematic for a number of reasons, not least the fact that such a distinction between poiesis and praxis was built on slavery (slaves performed the demeaning, ‘animalistic’ praxis, leaving citizens free to ‘bring things into being’). But the most telling critique is that art, including Agamben’s insurgent ready-mades, far from threatening the Western productive apparatus is a vital, though complex, ally in the advance of the commodity regime.

In a small aside Agamben (ibid.: 3) concedes that the Terror he evokes in ancient paranoiac territorialisation and nineteenth century ‘tragic heroism’ cannot always be matched in contemporary discourse: “It is no doubt superfluous to note that today it would be impossible to find such ideas [of extreme terror] even among censors.” It would be superfluous if the consistent reproduction of art commodification was frankly acknowledged, but because it cannot be, for fear of compromising the swashbuckling Romantic self-image of bourgeois intellectuals, such a statement needs to be made and not just in the fine print of hagiographies to radical art.

Contrary to middle class mythology art is not a timeless human quest for creative expression. It did not begin in some Strauss-accompanied moment on the African savannah or in some golden dawn of ancient Greek Gestell. To be sure the genesis of art is based on older signifying practices and the thinking around them, but the modern concept is exponentially different and deeply immersed in capitalism. Indeed commodification is not an extraneous variable; it is intrinsic to the social ontology of art.

Until the eighteenth century there was no ‘art’ as it is now understood, this modern notion being distinct from the imitative representation of classical mimesis and the techne, or ‘skill’, needed to craft it (which led to the medieval conception of ‘art’ as general skill, carpentry being an ‘art’ just like painting). Though much is made of the spontaneous vitalism of art the fact is that it was as much a product of the Industrial Revolution as any assembly line. The rationalisation demanded by capitalist commodity production increased the level of division and specialisation, with the result that different areas of skill became separated from each other. By the nineteenth century, the word art changed from meaning general skill to refer to the abstract ‘domain of expressive genius’ (Williams 1983 [1976]: 40-41). As a product of this isolating abstraction it is naïve to imagine that art is immune to the reificatory forces associated with general commodification.

Some of this commensurability with commodity production is fairly self-evident. The existence of the artist as a professional occupation equates the labour of the artist with any other profession, the notion of ‘aesthetic value’ makes art calculable within the value regime of capitalism, and the privileging of the reified ‘art work’ over the more dynamic conditions of art production.

Undoubtedly the reificatory pulse of art is contested, but the very dynamic instability of art, as long as it never absolutely exceeds commodification (that is, that it can always become a product or service exchangeable for, and thus interchangeable with, money), enables a more insidious reification by emphasising, and thus fetishising, this dynamism over the more predominant, everyday gravity of abstraction and ‘thing-ification’. Far from negating commodification enigmatic use value, celebrated in eye-of-the-beholder subjectivism, is the basis upon which the art market is constructed. So-called high art is exchanged quite easily as a commodity, though certain allowances are made to autonomous production, making it an elite business rather than ‘beyond business’. Where the complexities of art’s surplus signification (‘of course you don’t know “what it means”, it is ART’) endanger commodification the state is always there to prop up and stimulate the art market through government purchase, tax-breaks and other forms of subsidy. All of this helps not only to shield the sacred aura of art from vulgar profit demands, but also to maintain an institutionalised ‘art world’ network of rights and responsibilities between government agencies and artists, turning the latter into de-facto bureaucrats[v].

Yet what of the avant-garde or popular culture whose very identity of experimentation, irony and populism seemingly outstrips the reificatory control of bureaucratic elites? As Shiner (2001: 257) notes, “modernism and its theorists did not radically alter the basic beliefs of the fine art system so much as encourage a shift of emphasis within them.” Even the so-called ‘anti-art’ of Dadaism and Surrealism is quite recognisably ‘art’ in terms of producing auratic, yet commodifiable, artefacts and participating in the cult of artistic genius. Though Duchamp’s infamous ‘ready-made’ signed urinal was rejected from a 1917 exhibition it was not long before he was negotiating a deal between competing American museums for a long-term exhibition for his ready-mades (ibid. 291-92). Art is not simply the emaciated caricature of snobby, elitist ‘high art’ and if the explosive heterodoxy of modernism can be subsumed under its auspices then so too can the carnivalesque of popular culture.

If high art is subsumed under the commodity regime then it can hardly be said that popular culture is any different. The assembly-line uniformity of the form, if not the content, of ‘airport novels’, pop music, Hollywood films etc., despite potentially limitless aesthetic horizons, is testament to the force of this objectification. Likewise, whether it is a Rembrandt exhibition or a blockbuster movie, the spectatorial apparatus demarcates a relatively passive ‘audience’[vi] a reificatory similarity that binds high and popular art beyond straightforward commodification. Indeed, despite the famous insistence by Walter Benjamin that the mechanical reproduction of popular culture attacks the ‘auratic’ mystification of art (Benjamin 1973 [1955]: 212), ‘mass art’ remains within the auratic orbit. With a predictability you could almost set your watch to so many pop actors and musicians make an effort for ‘credibility’ by refashioning themselves as complex creative geniuses with ‘dark sides’ that warrant the magazine covers and fifteen-page stories that merely being another plastic entertainment industry clone could not[vii]. This is indicative of the need the culture industry has in art legitimation; the need for ‘deep complexity’ to augment the ‘frivolity’ of their disposable product. The fact that pop culture awards ceremonies recognise ‘artists’ (the ‘Best New Artist’ being a common category) and the fact that there are awards ceremonies at all indicates the perceived importance of ‘quality’ in a world where ‘quantity’ (sales) is all that is said to matter.

I am certainly not denying the potential radical threat that art poses to authoritarian closure. The question is how this immanent threat somehow manages to never implode ‘logocentric’ reproduction. What is going on here?

Perhaps Adorno can help us:

The bourgeois form of rationality has always needed irrational supplements, in order to maintain itself…[.] Such irrationality in the midst of the rational is the working atmosphere of authenticity. (Adorno 1973 [1964]: 38)

The authenticity of bourgeois rule demands some place where the high ideals of the middle class can be said to reside without disturbing too much the low ideals upon which it is really founded. The idea that the surplus signification of art automatically makes it a ‘free radical’, stripping the oxygen off repressive rationality, comes from a delusionally simplistic reading of modern structures of power. Art reproduces the commodity society, firstly by actually producing commodities – with all this entails for hierarchies of production and consumption – and secondly, and most insidiously, by doing it under the guise of transcendent human expression; which both denies and naturalises commodity production, lying about the prevalent nature of art as a commodity and/or shrugging the shoulders about this as if this was just the way of the world.

Art is part of the problem not the solution. Until the ontological status of art itself is challenged we will remain trapped within the reformist debates of form and content where the liquid and the shape of the vessel are politicised at the expense of naturalising the vessel itself. Though the debates about form move us in a more critical direction they still ultimately rely on the ‘direct circuit’ notion of art as simply an innocent, natural vector for ideas and emotions. Politics becomes ideological in the impoverished sense of ideas and emotions moving from the artwork into heads/souls with social change resulting (radical ideational unit + mind = social change). A brick in the Tate Gallery has the same political significance as a realist painting of Abu Ghraib detainees, as both are ‘comments’ on society, even if they are pitched at different levels. This is not to say that such comments are insignificant, merely that their provocation is not inherently radical and that while they may inspire in a vague, amorphous and contradictory way they also augment commodification in a much less amorphous way. We may not be able to really measure the ideational ‘effect’ of Barbara Kruger or Matt Groening’s work, but just ask their agents whether or not we can measure their financial value.

Society is more than the sum of ideas; it is not a computer program that resets every morning to accord with new ideas. It is made up of structures, strategies and practices that embody the asymmetries of power. Art is neither neutral nor resistant to these structures and ‘comments’ alone will not dissolve them.

To make the surplus of signification more than just a lubricant for hegemonic domination means searching for and enacting signifying practices outside of, and indeed antithetical to, the circuit of state and capital (pranks, creative vandalism, Hakim Bey’s ‘poetic terrorism’, situations that refuse the consensual neutrality of commodification like Guy Debord’s book binding in sandpaper to disrupt the storage of interchangeable units). This seems a more critical gesture than waiting patiently and compliantly for Mayakovsky’s hammer to shape more than contented bourgeois self-identity.


Adorno, T. (1973) [1964] The Jargon of Authenticity, Tarnowski, K. & Will, F. (trans.) London: Routledge.

Agamben, G. (1999) [1994] The Man Without Content, Albert, G. (trans.) Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Benjamin, W. (1973) [1955] Illuminations, Zohn, H. (trans.) & Arendt, H. (ed.) London: Fontana.

Bourdieu. P & Haacke, H. (1995) [1994] Free Exchange, Johnson, R. & Haacke, H. (trans.) Cambridge: Polity Press.

Clifford, J. (1988) The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Daintith, J. et. al. (eds.) (1990) Bloomsbury Thematic Dictionary of Quotations, London: Bloomsbury.

Guillory, J. (1993) Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Habermas, J. (1983) [1981] “Modernity – An Incomplete Project” In. Foster, H. (ed.) The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, Port Townsend: Bay Press, pp. 3-15.

Hansen, M. (1992) “Mass Culture as Hieroglyphic Writing: Adorno, Derrida, Kracauer” New German Critique 56: 43-73.

Saunders, F. S. (1999) Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War, London: Granta Books.

Shiner, L. (2001) The Invention of Art: A Cultural History, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Williams, R. (1983) [1976] Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, London: Fontana Press.

[i] “That the work of art is something other than what is simple in it is almost too obvious.” (Agamben 1999 [1994]: 8).

[ii] Even so-called behavioural or psychological economics, so fashionable in our present post-GFC world, only addresses subjective desires as post-factum rationalisations for prices. If prices really did mirror use value there would never be any economic downturns as this part of the so-called ‘business cycle’ result from oversupply/underconsumption.

[iii] The ‘super meaning’ of art dictates an autonomy from the normal regulations of communication, such as the American Supreme Court exemption of art from obscenity laws (Bourdieu & Haacke 1995 [1994]: 7). This differential treatment allows art to critique beyond the bounds of conventional media using the allowance given to interpretation as a protective cloak. And by ‘critique’ I mean shoving big, black Mapplethorpian cocks into the faces of trembling burghers and technocrats.

[iv] Such as Habermas’ (1983 [1981]) warm and fuzzy ‘communicative’ reason over instrumental rationalism.

[v] Not to mention the quite explicit statecraft functions served by such ‘investment’ as seen in the C.I.A support of Abstract Expressionism in the interests of Cold War propaganda (Saunders 1999: 252-278).

[vi] Even if the much-vaunted ‘interactivity’ of popular culture could be said to exist this ‘active engagement’ with the spectacle of mass culture, overtly promoted by fan clubs and viewer competitions, actually creates a participative identification with the stereotypes of textual forms (Hansen 1992: 51). Interactivity generally means consuming actively for art rather than the other way around.

[vii] Examples of this include many boy-band refugees like Robbie Williams and Justin Timberlake (the central animus in their respective pre-packaged units, a past they must continually downplay as ‘Serious Artists’) and teeny-pop stars like Christine Aguilera (who now flaunts her vocal talents and musicianship as well as the ethnic identity which gives her that edge of ‘dispossession’ so important for the ‘suffering artist’ and which was previously whited-out with an Aryan blonde-styling) as well as Hollywood stars like Gwyneth Paltrow (who, in a previous role as Sylvia Plath, taps more directly into the overt signifiers of The Artist. This choice is most apt, representing all the clichés of art such as the tragedy of genius).


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