August 12, 2014
Response to Marina Pinsky

It’s both unusual and exciting to hear from the subject of a work of art, especially when that subject has a lot of interesting things to say and, furthermore, is herself an artist of considerable interest. And I think Marina Pinsky is exactly right when she insists that “To use the force of a frame to extract a person from their world, symbolic or physical, is a violent act.” But I think she is exactly wrong when she suggests we resist that force (resist the autonomy of the work) and when she identifies this resistance with the “possibility of justice, inside or outside the arena of art.”

In my reading, the violence of the frame in Marina and the Yucca not only makes what Pinsky calls the particularities of its subject’s life unknowable, it also, more crucially, makes them irrelevant. What I mean is, it’s not just that the photo doesn’t show what Marina is thinking or imagine her life but that it isn’t even interested in them. And because it’s not interested in what she thinks, it’s also not interested in what we might think about her. That’s the point of its insistence on its own internal structure. Thus, for example, it’s not Marina’s barely visible (but, I completely agree, cool) slouch that matters; it’s the loop that straightens her up, that doesn’t belong in any way to her (it’s not an element in her body language) and that has nothing to do with how we feel about her. It’s created and contained by the work itself. Hence its power lies not in any “proliferation of meanings” (what it might mean to you, to me, to men, to women, to black people, to white people, to rich, to poor) but in the fact that it means what it means regardless of who we are.

Another way of putting this is to say that the violence of the frame consists above all in making our lives as irrelevant as hers, and it’s in this indifference to our particularity (this allegorizing of its irrelevance) that I locate the politics of Kydd’s work. The fundamental categories of both conservative and liberal politics in the U.S. today are deployed in debates over how we should understand our own and each other’s particularity, over (to use Pinsky’s examples) questions like whether racism is responsible for the disproportionate number of black people in prison or Native Americans in poverty and whether sexism is responsible for the state’s indifference to providing adequate child care. But these debates are empty, and for two reasons. The first is that it obviously is racism and sexism that’s responsible for these disparities. (Which means the liberals win.) The second is that success in eliminating these disparities – in creating a world where as many white people as black people are in prison, as many Asian Americans as Native Americans are poor, and women are just as free to enter the job market and compete for the best jobs as men – would not create a more equal society. (Which means the conservatives win.)

Why do the conservatives win? Because economic inequality is left materially undiminished and ideologically enhanced by a critique that identifies justice not with the effort to minimize it but with the effort to minimize the role played by racism or sexism in causing it. This is what Adolph Reed and Merlin Chowkwanyun mean when they say that the “disparitarian perspective” is “reflective of a class position tied programmatically to the articulation of a metric of social justice compatible with neoliberalism.” And it’s what Karen and Barbara Fields are talking about when they worry that what they call “racecraft” (the ability of conservatives and liberals to racialize both their defense of inequality and their opposition to it) leaves us “no legitimate language for talking about class.” Indeed, one could put the point in even stronger terms; it leaves us, even when we are talking about class, treating it as if it were a kind of identity, like race or sex, as if opposing “classism” were a way of opposing capitalism.

But works like Marina and the Yucca do have a way of talking about class, and without turning it into just another identity. Indeed, the way they do it is precisely by refusing identity (that’s what it means for Marina, as Marina Pinsky says, to reveal neither its subject’s “interior life” nor her “outward engagement with the world”) and by insisting on distinctions that are instead structural (that’s what it means for Marina to establish the frame itself and hence thematize the irrelevance of the beholder’s interior life and his or her engagement with the world too). The politics of the work thus consist not in its subject matter but in its relation to that subject matter and not in making itself open to the responses of its audience but in asserting its autonomy from them.

So when Marina Pinsky ends her letter by asking, “what is the point of arguing for such autonomy,” one answer is political. It’s a way of imagining our society as fundamentally structured by differences that are produced by the relations between capital and labor and not by how we see or feel about each other. But I don’t imagine that this political answer is entirely adequate. That is, I don’t imagine that the goal of (what seems to me) a good politics is primary here. Naturally, different artists will have different motives but it’s probably pretty safe to say that the desire to make good art takes an almost tautological precedence over any other. The interesting question then is not about the artist’s politics but about his or her understanding of what good art is, about the work’s theory of itself. And Marina and the Yucca’s answer to that question is precisely the assertion of its autonomy. Its good politics, in other words, are less its point than an entailment of its point.


1. Take a look, for example, at some of her work here:

2. Part of the point of the yucca is the contrast here—we don’t need the loop to help make perspicuous the consequences of the fact that we can’t know its thoughts; it doesn’t have any thoughts. But that opens up a whole new line of inquiry—about the relation between human life and plant life, and about the ways today in which the question of that relation gets posed. Of course, the yucca can’t write into, but it’s easy to imagine that some readers might feel moved to do so on its behalf. Furthermore, whether or not the force of the frame is differently applied in the two elements of the diptych, the pressure on the frame (on the very idea of the frame) is itself intensified by the fact that there are two elements, and thus there’s a sense in which the frame is disconnected from the objects and reproduced in the form of a concept. All of which (including the cord that Margaret Olin rightly draws to our attention and that links the two elements and plugs into the wall) is just to say that Marina and the Yucca is brilliantly obsessed with the question of what counts as part of the work of art and what doesn’t.

3. Adolph Reed, Jr. and Merlin Chowkwanyun, “Race, Class, Crisis: The Discourse of Racial Disparity and its Analytical Discontents.” 
4. Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (London: Verso, 2012), 39.
5. Thus, for example, Peter Frase’s recent enthusiasm (in Jacobin) for the idea that even though “class may be a structural relation,” it is “also an identity,” could easily have been cross-posted on Jezebel since its payoff is to make possible Frase’s disapproval of “soi-disant leftist(s)” who “ridicule the tastes and mores of a rabble” they “perceive to be made up of fat, lazy stupid rubes” ( No doubt, fat-shaming (and slut-shaming and smart-shaming and, Frase’s point, class-shaming) should be avoided. But avoiding them doesn’t actually make you any kind of leftist, even a soi-disant one.
6. By tautological, I just mean that you’re not really making art at all unless you’re trying to make it good and that if all you mean by making it good is having some kind of beneficial social effect, you almost certainly made a really bad career choice.
About the Author

Walter Benn Michaels recently published The Beauty of a Social Problem (Chicago, 2016). His other books include The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism: American Literature at the Turn of the Century; Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism; The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History; and The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality. Recent articles—some on literature, some on photography, and some on politics—have appeared in such journals as PMLA, New Labor Forum, and Le Monde diplomatique.

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