Art in the Age of Economic Inequality

By Dylan J. MontanariApril 2, 2016

The Beauty of a Social Problem by Walter Benn Michaels

A COMMON COMPLAINT in the recent history of academia is that what certain professors are up to is not really scholarship but politics by other means. What sorts of expression cease being scholarship and begin being politics, and to what extent an explicitly political form of expression does or does not constitute a form of academic activity are questions that have been and continue to be debated among professors and students alike.

In such a climate, it is especially refreshing to encounter Walter Benn Michaels’s The Beauty of a Social Problem. The book, though not a direct response to such controversies, is nonetheless a shining example of how to think about art and politics without reducing either term to the other.

Michaels, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is the author of four books — The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism, on the workings of capitalist logic in 19th-century American literary texts; Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism, on the racial subtext underpinning the development of the notion of cultural identity; The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History, on the ideological dimension behind the shift in literary theory from authorial intention to readerly experience; and, most recently, The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, on the manner in which the discourse of “difference,” be it cultural, ethnic, or otherwise, draws attention away from a more fundamental form of difference, one defined by class and economic inequality.

As will be clear even from these brief descriptions, Michaels has devoted much of his intellectual energy to critiquing a certain liberal attachment to talk of identity and diversity, and has done so from the left, revealing certain supposedly progressive tenets to be anything but.

In his latest book, whose title first named a 2011 article in The Brooklyn Rail, Michaels again devotes his attention to these issues but this time in a distinctly aesthetic register. The aim of the book, as he writes early on, is:

to produce an account of the relation between aesthetic autonomy and political economy today, to show the usefulness of a certain concept of class for understanding the formal ambitions of some recent art, and to show the usefulness of a certain concept of art for understanding a society organized and increasingly stratified by class.

Over the course of five chapters, Michaels devotes himself to a series of artists born after 1965. The significance of that date is twofold.

First, it marks a period that saw the critique of both form as the locus of a work’s autonomy as well as meaning as the expression of artistic intention. Second, it is a period that saw an unprecedented rise in economic inequality.

For Michaels, the commitment of some artists to form and meaning — against their post-structuralist critiques — adopts a new political significance: it represents a claim to autonomy on the part of those artists and their works. It is here that Michaels is — and has been — unlike many contemporary academics, who seek the political element in the explicit content of art, and believe that a work of art needs to explicitly represent something political in order to be political or in order to have a political message. For Michaels, what is political about a work resides in its form; thus, it need not represent anything explicitly political at all (it should be said that, on this point at least, a thinker like Jacques Rancière is not as much of a foe as Michaels makes him out to be). On this view, autonomy, then, is considered by many to be a kind of withdrawal from the world, a refusal to take positions, a supposedly apolitical act that is, in fact, a reactionary lack of engagement. Michaels could not disagree more. For him, “the separation of the work from the world […] functions here as an emblem of the relation between classes […] and also of the escape from that relation, of the possibility of a world without class.”

Michaels’s thinking here resembles that of the art historian Michael Fried, who has often been (unfairly) taken to be the model of an “apolitical” art historian, as opposed to T. J. Clark, for example. Indeed, the second chapter, “Neoliberal Aesthetics,” an earlier version of which was published on, engages at length with Fried’s writing, taking up and expanding on many of Fried’s central concerns. For Fried, “absorption” is the result of an effort to achieve a “mode of pictorial unity” by way of a seemingly contradictory task — to make a painting that exists as though it was not made to be beheld. Pursued far enough, this Diderotian notion can lead to what seems like a contradiction, as Michaels points out — “the works of art we value are those that seek to produce no effect on the beholder, but without the effort to produce an effect on the beholder […] there would be no works of art.” Michaels gives an account of various attempts to wrestle with this antinomy, culminating in the figure of John Cage and his goal of creating art that, in refusing intentionality, “would therefore exist as an art only insofar as it existed for the viewer.” Michaels applies this problem to photography — it has been thought that photographs are related to what they depict in a way that paintings, for example, are not, since photographs are, on some views, causally dependent upon what they depict.

Michaels also discusses Rancière, for whom photography is a medium that always escapes the photographer’s intention, since it always, inevitably registers something of the world that the artist did not “put” in it. Rancière connects this fact to what he sees as photography’s capacity to short-circuit our “hierarchical vision of the world” — the case addressed is Rancière’s reading of the photographs in James Agee’s and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and the writer and photographer’s own understanding of them, with which Michaels aligns himself. Michaels articulates his disagreement with Rancière by writing that it is one thing to see, as he puts it, “the beggar boys and peasants as damaged by our falsely hierarchical vision of them and seeing them as damaged by conditions that our vision may sanction or critique but did not produce.” That is, Michaels adds, “it’s one thing to insist that social hierarchies are illusory and therefore unjust; it’s a very different thing to think that, although unjust, they are very real.” As an example, Michaels notes how certain calls for antidiscrimination can act as more of a conscience than a critique, calling for something like merely “good behavior” within the status quo instead of a more radical change.

“The political meaning of the refusal of form […]” Michaels writes, “is the indifference to those social structures that, not produced by how we see, cannot be overcome by seeing differently.” In short, such a refusal treats objective structures as though they were merely subjective ones, as though they were a defect of thought rather than one of reality.

To return to the case of Cage, who is taken as an extreme case of anti-intentionalism and of an audience-oriented aesthetics: Michaels argues that it is a self-undermining approach. By rejecting artistic intention and making audience response the only thing that matters, such an artist actually intentionally sets out to make a work whose only point is the response of the audience. Thus, the audience’s experience merely amounts to the understanding that the only point to the work is that it has none, and that this is precisely what the artist intended.

Over the course of the book, Michaels appeals to a number of artists whose work, in his view, resists such a “theatrical” (in Fried’s terminology) anti-intentionalism. In the chapter just discussed, for example, Michaels appeals to the work of Viktoria Binschtok to argue against the emphasis on vision and thus on content as the prerequisite for a genuinely political experience of art. For Michaels, it is unsurprising that such an aesthetics, one that is critical of form, meaning, and intention, should correspond historically with a rise in inequality, since it is a kind of aesthetics that is actually counterproductive to the progressive causes in the service of which it takes itself to be. It is counterproductive because by emphasizing content and identity over form and structure, it only calls into question our ways of thinking, rather than the material conditions that enable them. Autonomy, in upholding the distinction between art and non-art, does not represent some kind of arch elitism here; rather, it represents the distance from the world necessary to apprehend its structural features, to make them available for questioning.

I have focused on the second chapter of Michaels’s book because it represents, in many ways, its theoretical fulcrum. In so doing, I have done an immense disservice to the richness of the other four chapters, each of which have a substantial theoretical part as well as case studies involving contemporary artists and writers. In Chapter One, “Formal Feelings,” Michaels canvasses debates over the indexicality of photography, and what is at stake in considering a photograph as mere representation rather than a full-blooded object, engaging with Fried’s 2008 book on photography as well as with other theorists like Barthes, Rosalind Krauss, and Joel Snyder. This chapter also includes a lengthy overview of the development of growing inequality, as well as considerations of the poet Maggie Nelson and of the artists Jeff Wall, Andreas Gursky, James Welling, and the above-mentioned Binschtok. In Chapter Three, Michaels discusses Tom McCarthy’s Remainder — reading the novel and its protagonist against the grain of McCarthy himself — along with the work of artists Oscar Tuazon, Phil Chang, Arthur Ou, Brian Ulrich, and Liz Deschenes, in addition to analyzing work by August Sander, which he usefully contrasts with the aforementioned Agee and Evans material. Finally, in Chapter Five, Michaels turns to Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, as well as Laurent Binet’s HHhH and Binet’s own criticism of Littell’s controversial novel. As Michaels writes at the end of the book, what the works he found himself drawn to have in common is that, rather than “[placing] today’s objective social conditions at their center,” they “[imagine] a form that refuses the politics of personal involvement” and thus “make those objective conditions visible.” By asserting “the difference between itself and the world,” that is, its autonomy, a work of this kind displays, for Michaels, “the irreducibility of social structure to our affective relation to that structure.”

Ultimately, Michaels’s book is in the service of the appreciation of aesthetic experience not based on affect and the development of politics not based on identification. As he writes at the end of Chapter One,

it’s only insofar as art seeks to be beautiful — seeks, that is, to achieve the formal perfection imaginable in works of art but not in anything else — that it can also function as a picture not of how, if we behaved better, we might manage capitalism’s problems, but rather of capitalism as itself the problem.

Skeptics might think that Michaels is calling for a kind of apolitical art, one devoid of explicitly political content. He answers those skeptics early on when he writes, in the preface, that:

if what you want is a change in policy, you’re not likely to get it from art, and particularly not from the kind of formally ambitious art I describe here. But if what you want is a vision of the structures that produce both the policies we’ve got and the desire for alternatives to them, art is almost the only place you can find it.

It is customary to end such a review by acknowledging the banal truth that “not all will agree with the author that …” It is a virtue of Michaels’s book that it does not seek merely to be agreed with; rather, it channels the force of its examples to challenge major assumptions about what it means to engage with art in a political way, even and especially when it is beautiful.


Dylan J. Montanari is a graduate student at Stanford University, where he also co-coordinates the Philosophy and Literature Initiative. His work has been published in BerfroisChicago Review, Philosophy & Literature, and Italian studies journals.

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Dylan J. Montanari currently works in academic publishing.


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