Introduction: Contemporary Art and the PMC (Parts One and Two)
There have been many summaries in the past ten years of what the term “professional-managerial class” (PMC) was referring to when social scientists Barbara and John Ehrenreich first used the term in 1977 in their broader consideration of the New Left’s political failures in the United States and Europe.1 In this wrap from 2012, the directors of the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung New York Office sum up the key features of the PMC and the political stakes of thinking about them for today’s left pretty well:
Historically, members of the PMC have designed and managed capital’s systems of social control, oftentimes treating working-class people with a mixture of paternalism and hostility. As advocates for rational management of the workplace and society, however, the PMC has sometimes also acted as a buffer against the profit motive as the sole meaningful force in society. Today, members of the PMC face a choice. Will they cling to an elitist conception of their own superiority and attempt to defend their own increasingly tenuous privileges, or will they act in solidarity with other working people and help craft a politics capable of creating a better world for all?2
The renewed attention to the history and behavior of this credentialed demographic is coming now because they are believed to have some relevance to our present slide toward neoliberal oligarchy. One premise for this pair of issues of nonsite is to think about the role art has played in the PMC’s securing and “defense” of its “tenuous privileges.” Whether we think of the PMC as a Marxian class or not is less important to this project than that we recognize them as a loosely held-together, highly educated group with tremendous influence on what art gets made and has been made in the global art world since the early 1960s.3
It is important to remember that for a while after 1945, the PMC possessed real political leverage due to their secure position in the global capitalist economy. Eric Hobsbawm’s account of the twentieth century reminds us that economic prosperity during a “Golden Age” lasting from roughly 1946–1966 enabled access by working urban and rural people worldwide to a degree of comfort and luxury that only one generation before would have been unthinkable in their families.4 Racism and sexism assured this access was unevenly tilted toward whites and men. During this period, the “reformist governments” of men such as President Eisenhower and Prime Minister Macmillan pushed for “policy consensus between Right and Left.” These “elderly gentlemen” Keynesians who had watched the economic depression and the rise of Nazism it enabled unfold in Europe between the wars advocated for both “employers and labour organizations,” forcefully facilitating a “balance” between “wages” and “profits” (AE 282–85). As a result, “the economies of the industrial capitalist countries did splendidly, if only because for the first time (outside North America and, perhaps Australasia) an economy of mass consumption came into existence on the basis of full employment and regularly rising real incomes, buttressed by social security, which in time was paid for by rising public revenues” (AE 282). It is hard to imagine today such a situation in which even the capitalists at the top agreed with the unions (or were compelled by the state to agree with them) that consumers with steady incomes and stability were best for everyone’s interests, including their own (AE 271–72).
Much more familiar is Hobsbawm’s account of what happened next: “After the end of the Golden Age these arrangements were savagely assailed by the rising free-market theologians under the name of ‘corporatism’” (AE 282). By the late 1970s, the system was no longer the same, and middle-class people did not take up the political fight with anything close to the numbers needed to maintain the public structures that had been enabling their families’ prosperity. (Enter the Ehrenreichs.) The twenty-year golden aberration seemed to have convinced those who worked for a living (white- and blue-collar) that capitalism could function without gross violence. It left a pleasant hangover from which many in the PMC still have not emerged, even though the return to ruling class ruthlessness has now lasted far longer than the respite from it, and even though PMC success requires ever higher bars of competitive prowess (and/or bribing of college admissions departments) to be realized.5
Insofar as the PMC are some sort of class, they are positioned “between labor and capital.”6 At a structural level, they are not transparently antagonistic to the bourgeoisie because they enable the owners to exploit workers in a more organized, more friction-free environment. At the same time, the salaried professionals never see the kind of profits and advantages their bosses do; they too must let themselves be exploited on behalf of capital or face job loss.7 The question for art history and art criticism is how does this structural position inflect the capacity of the art made for and by the PMC for critical-creative relationship to capitalism?
To begin to answer such a question, we might consider the ways contemporary art has a fundamentally different relationship to power than avant-garde modern art of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most existing histories of contemporary art would take it as given that there are crucial formal and ideological differences, but a continuity is usually posited between avant-garde and contemporary anti-capitalism. However, taking a lead from Adolph Reed’s 1986 analysis of the success of the black managerial elite and the failures of black radical organizers in the late 1960s and early 1970s, we might ask whether art history (like the activists that Reed analyzed) “has not fully grasped the recent shifts in the structure of domination and continues to organize [or conceptualize and figure in artworks] resistance along the very lines that reinforce the existing social order.”8 In other words, our current account of the historical meaning to be found in sixties art may be symptomatic of a failure to adapt to the realities of power in the mid-century modern world as it migrated from Fordist to post-Fordist and Keynesian to neoliberal models.
Insofar as modern art was oriented toward a bourgeois audience, it can be seen either to accommodate or call out the contradiction at the heart of the bourgeois world. On the one hand, they were a historically revolutionary class that restructured the western social world in the name of greater democracy; on the other hand, for the sake of their own small group’s enrichment, they exploit the labor, desires, and impulses of millions and damage the natural world on which everyone relies. A classic art historical slide comparison would be to place a Georges Seurat painting from the 1880s next to one by Camille Pissarro from the 1890s. The Seurat would stand for the “collapse” of rational systems into the physical and social world, providing a vision of their exquisite and terrifying merger.9 On the other side, Pissarro would stand for an art in which world and system push against each other productively, and we see the human actor finding ways to bring the two together within the logic of relationships that allow the painting to cohere. Seurat makes bourgeois industrial rationality look like it might work out okay. Pissarro also affirms the bourgeois viewer’s embrace of human invention in the re-making of the world since 1789, but he calls her back to the materialist universals with which her class originally opposed feudal power, suggesting she never let go of that basis for her future plans and modern constructions.
Before 1962—if you will allow me a sweeping claim—serious art had often attempted to do a version of what Pissarro was doing. Pick your favorite examples and tell me if this is not a true statement: modern art (and much premodern art) proffers an idea, a story, a meaning, an intention to give form to something understood to be compellingly true that was not directly empirically observable, and it does this through, or in some other way in relation to, formal elements or sensuous properties that are qualitatively different from the intended meaning or idea. Hegel writes about this.10 Like Hegel, I think it is when we can see and feel the resolution that the artist found for a familiar struggle between such contradictory or opposite kinds of reality that we like the artwork and judge it to be a good or beautiful one. We understand the value of that mutually transformative relationship because it is similar to what we do every day as human beings trying to realize our desires, to give form to our grasp of “the Absolute” even, and to meet our needs (including the need for social recognition) in a physical world with other beings. The interplay of abstractions and materials, in other words, are the basis of human practice, and (modern) art has always been a strange, small, artificial site where human societies reflect on, experiment with, and make proposals about practice—about how the different constraints on it feel now, as well as the ideals motivating it, its current meanings for people, and how it should or could be in the future.
What has replaced this mode of making and thinking about art in the contemporary era tends to elevate only the abstract side of the dialectic, no longer testing in any real way the invented systems, structures, and icons with something drawn from the differently understood realm of sensuous physicality. I think it would help us to see the ways such an art has suited the taste and skills of the PMC.
If modern art presumed a bourgeois viewer, then most contemporary art expects a professional middle-class viewer, which is to say, of course, a person like ourselves. This person is versed in any number of abstract theories, skilled in using the systems and templates of white-collar and creative-class labor to solve problems, and accepts the pleasures and patterns of shopping, consumption, and self-branding as motivation, reward, economic engine, and primary unifier in the world she lives and conducts her practice in every day. So much would be true whether we are “emerging” artists, university adjunct instructors, or Wall Street hedge fund managers.
These PMC viewers are also known for the value they place on controlling their feelings. Catherine Liu would say, in her distinctively harsh style, they “litigate … pleasure,” and Barbara Ehrenreich portrays this trait as a way to maintain control and to distinguish their “capacity for deferred gratification” from the “impulsive” behavior imputed to the working class (a difference their affluence [if they have it], combined with the lures of marketing, threatens to erode, causing anxiety).11 The PMC are responsible for maintaining discipline in the workplace and in their own demanding work schedule, so ideally no one, including themselves, must ever get upset (except when they can frame the grievance within the identitarian terms endorsed by managerialism).12 Relationships in public spaces in which both sides have some vulnerability or “skin in the game” are sacrificed. What might be seen as a corresponding defendedness in the aesthetics of systemic painting, Pop, minimalism, and conceptualism is extreme. Such art rewards a viewer who does not enjoy emotional exchanges, but who does have strong, positive, hopeful feelings every time they figure out how a system works. Contemporary art has helped the PMC feel good about their choices and justified in their limits, in part, because an overriding emphasis on abstraction and system validates the type of solutions that our most lucrative skills tend to generate.
Our art is more like Seurat’s, in other words, than Pissarro’s. If avant-garde art like Pissarro’s answered the anti-aesthetic, anti-human abstractions of capitalism with an art (itself an abstraction) that figured dialectical relationships between structures and physical materials—or concepts and bodies, intentions and vulnerabilities—then PMC art diverges radically from avant-garde art insofar as it answers capitalist abstraction with an equally undialectical system. Rather than calling out the PMC on the contradictions between their ideals and behavior (by, say, reminding them that in addition to being rational managers, they are embodied beyond prescriptive conceptions of the body matched only to categories), most contemporary art seems only to accommodate the contradiction (and to have no idea what “embodiment” means or why it matters). Consider here, as an example, the managerial approach to structure and body of Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party (1974–79) with its modular gathering site and anatomical femininity. More recently, in 2021, the cute abstractions floating in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall made by Anicka Yi are similarly celebrated for “breaking down distinctions between plants, animals, micro-organisms and machines.”13 The PMC proceed in the world, thinking of themselves in this same undialectical way that contemporary art repeatedly figures, and so buoyed in whatever small way by it, they put forth similarly invulnerable, disembodied, technocratic solutions to problems. The PMC answers capital with management, which capital easily absorbs for its own end.
Systems and consumption both lean abstract, in artistic languages and in the world. This matters because, at their worst (and usually wealthiest and least precarious), the PMC have happily relented to their dependency on the ruling class and have adopted a world view that accepts exploitation of the majority of human beings on the planet as just the way things have to be. In this, the PMC ignores the suffering in its own ranks and simply continues a view of capitalism as a kind of new Nature that goes back to the depoliticized bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century, a position which found its aesthetic in sublime landscape and happy peasant painting, among other styles.14 It may feel true enough that the strong clobber the weak in the natural world (they do), but it is also easier to think of oneself as a passive spec in a big, impersonal, churning system or as a bit of data sent into a “black box,” or an actor in a market-like network, than to take action as a subject in a world, composing structures that must accommodate physical and other kinds of vulnerability, or working out relationships between entities with different needs and intentions in a fair way.15 Sublimity is easier to endorse than fairness is to propagate.
This issue, then, is undergirded by a desire for art history to consider the various forms art’s accommodation of PMC contradiction has taken, and to consider how it has contributed to or helped justify a certain way of operating in the world that has refused the old notion of the “public good” or “the demos” and thereby supported status quo cynicism and the profiteering promulgated by capitalism.16 This provision of an affective ballast for neoliberalism entails more than just wittingly or unwittingly promoting the identitarian thinking at the core of liberal ideology. Any of the thousands of contemporary artworks since the late 1960s oriented toward the representation of something about the experience or style of a marginalized, easily categorized group might be weaponized to prescribe conflict, manage feelings, and support liberal “interest group” politics. But, again, what I think we should become attuned to more than its subject matter (which is only ever one component), is whether a contemporary work of art offers whatever it has to offer via an abstraction or system without admitting into the set of relationships that comprise the work of art anything that would challenge that system’s terms, logic, or qualities. The stakes of such a question are akin, I think, to asking whether human practice is to be governed only by the law of the jungle or if structures founded on other principles might also play a role.
Using the hindsight increasingly available to us to acknowledge the limitations of the most dominant trends in contemporary art can cause artists circa 1960 who did not readily embrace systems and dematerialization to look more compelling than perhaps they did before to viewers raised on minimalist aesthetics. Take, for example, Ed Bereal, situated in the same Los Angeles art world as minimalist and high technologist Larry Bell. The Chouinard Art Institute and the Ferus Gallery were shared centers for both men in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Bereal explained that he and his closest artist friends (which included Melvin Edwards and Ron Miyashiro) distinguished what they were doing circa 1960 from the “clean and white art” that he associated with Ellsworth Kelly and Ad Reinhardt (and which, along with Pop, clearly made a significant impact on Bell17 ): “It’s like the difference between B.B. King and Elvis, … Or chili beans versus Jell-O.” He preferred art that was “funkier” and “more human,” which for him meant an art that can “accept human fallibility as opposed to someone’s definition of perfect.”18
Placing Bereal’s assemblage Summer Mechanic (1958–59) (fig. 1) next to Bell’s The Aquarium (1962–63) (fig. 2) makes the difference Bereal is articulating vivid. Both artworks take the pictorial rectangle as a starting place and move it into three dimensions, but Bereal’s looks like the canvas has folded in on itself, forming a compact protruding bundle with nails, bolts, nuts, and pipe ends jutting out from its otherwise securely spackled openings. By contrast, Bell’s transparent glass box invites the idea of barred access with a diagonal bar—the universal sign for “No”—connecting two expertly cut corners, only to reveal all in the end as the exposed contents are, in fact, what Joan Mitchell might have called in a moment of annoyance with contemporary painting in 1965, “nothing but stripes.”19 Whatever the bar conceals is only more of the silver pattern we can see above and below it. No mysteries here.
Where Bereal’s sack full of protected construction materials asserts its dark boundary with a grizzled surface that absorbs light save for a few brown glints, Bell’s reflective interior emanates a pristine, weightless white haze. With Bereal’s choice of words above in mind, the comparison suggests modernist interiority and one Black American’s understanding of humanity in the context of the global Black struggle for just social recognition made sense together circa 1960; and that perhaps the sense of an invulnerable, empty interior through which anything might flow unobstructed, in no need of formal negotiation or effort, was a metaphor—a reverie—enabled by the privileges of white boyhood (and loss of understanding one’s interior as site of consciousness of political struggle) after World War II in Southern California, where Bell and many others in the Light and Space group grew up.20 Though white, Bell’s has more in common with the mythic “black box” and “feedback loop” of systems theory than Bereal’s actually black box.21 In Bereal’s account of that period of L.A. art history, the “clean and white” style often meant more success with the “art business” side of things, frequently leading to more gallery shows.22
Aside from their very different presentations of what interiority is or could be like, we can say that both Bereal and Bell are working with similar abstractions: the rectangle, the container, a relationship between inside and surface, words in their titles that refer to something in the world that is easy to imagine, and notions of engineering and skill with machines. But Bereal uses his materials to introduce other realities and qualities that those abstractions have to negotiate with, and that frankly sometimes mess them up a bit. The rectangle’s straight edges have been degraded by whatever process was required to layer up all the paint on the surface. The nails and pipes look like what they are, but the nails also look like entrails, and the pipes also look like architecture, introducing qualities simultaneously bodily and massive in scale. The container is both leaking and concealing, barring access and beckoning us to come closer in hope of more intimate knowledge. The sculpture seems tightly constructed by a human with a plan, but a lot of it also looks like an organically generated callous or scab. Bereal shows us we can think all of those qualities simultaneously in relation. The Bell presents the artist’s ideas as if free from obstacles. Glass cedes to tool. Edges align. Light is always the most abstract of materials. Lift-off is achieved in an object the size of a countertop appliance. Who can deny the pleasure of such a fantasy?
For sixty years art history has explored the charms and critical insights of Pop, minimalist, conceptualist, and identitarian art. What the essays in these issues of nonsite demonstrate is that scholars have (I hope) become in recent years ready to let this art be enough a part of the past to at least consider the aspects of it which might be complicit in the ways power has operated within capitalism during the neoliberal era in which it was made, and in turn, to consider the ways certain artworks engaged with this problem.
Of the artworks brought to the table in this issue, some are treated for the most part critically, shown to be symptomatic of the undialectical lean toward abstraction that I have been characterizing in this introduction so far. These toughly-loved examples include Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Adrian Piper’s early conceptualism, Art & Language, Thomas Hirschhorn, and Maurizio Cattelan. The rest of the artists that arise in the issue are discussed in terms that the authors hope we can get behind. These begin with David Smith, the issue’s one modernist holdover, and then continue with Lygia Clark’s early work, Yvonne Rainer, Allan Sekula, Santiago Sierra, James Welling, and filmmaker Robert Greene. The nine essays in these two issues offer insights with many points of overlap across the history that includes the PMC and contemporary art, but they can be grouped loosely according to the following three thematics.
Steve Edwards, AnnMarie Perl (in Part Two), and Blake Stimson each take up the Ehrenreichs’ account of the PMC in essays that review, challenge, and mine that period self-reflection by members of a class who were witnessing what Edwards calls the “deflation” of an ideology. Edwards shows Sekula’s Aerospace Folktales (1973) (among other photographic and written works) to constitute a period entry into the debates about the PMC that pays particular attention to the special status of “the engineer”—the mid-century figure perhaps most ambiguously situated between labor and capital, and thus for whom the implications of being laid off circa 1970 are the hardest to face. Because the engineer case study in Sekula’s analysis is his father, the artist is well-situated to portray aesthetically the ways such threats to his father’s sense of his “individual talent” were an “obstacle to class self-understanding,” typical to the PMC as the Ehrenreichs also understood it.
Stimson similarly considers the obstacles posed to “effective economic and political thinking and organizing” by the PMC’s longstanding role “providing cultural and social critique,” couched in the language of expertise. To step outside of our role as “unwitting ideologists of a bourgeoisie that has liberated itself from the dirty work of manufacturing consent” and realistically address power, Stimson argues, we PMC critics and artists should look to the intersection of labor and community organizing that labor organizers themselves tell us is key. In this sense, Stimson asks us to see “community” in the same dialectical manner that Marx understood factories and Lenin understood parliaments—i.e., that it is an actually-existing tool for intentional political organization that is at once the disease and the cure.
Perl mobilizes the theory of the PMC to undergird her understanding of October’s project, also initiated in the late seventies, as something akin to the Ehrenreichs’ account of PMC “radicals in the professions.” Taking up a similar question as the Ehrenreichs about why the socially minded contingent within the PMC failed to produce a viable political movement, Perl turns to Art & Language’s stringent critique of October in 1976 for one answer, suggesting (with utmost sympathy) that the PMC’s distant and theoretical approach to politics and history has proven to be one of its greatest limitations, one Perl’s essay itself admits it can hardly see a way out of.
Anne Wagner, Andrew Hoberek, and Chris Reitz consider three different types of labor figured in art practices from the contemporary period. David Smith, discussed by Wagner, stands for the lingering influence of industrial labor in work by older modernists still being made in the 1960s. This influence plays out in the maintenance of a viable dialectic between abstraction and physicality in a sculpture which reaches “transcendence,” in Wagner’s account, without abandoning, but rather incorporating, the traces of the laborious process by which it was made.
Advancing rapidly in sensibility if not in years, we come to see Roy Lichtenstein’s comic book paintings through Hoberek’s lens to unapologetically perform an appropriation of working-class labor by the middle class. In so doing Lichtenstein and Pop in general emblematize what would become the PMC’s longstanding solution to the increasing insecurity of their class within capitalism: seek to distance themselves from the rest of the working class by ironically embracing the mechanisms within capitalism that hollow out their ideals and produce their own proletarianization.
Reitz brings the consideration of labor into the present by offering Maurizio Cattelan as the incarnation of a neoliberal busy-body administrator, laughing all the way to the bank, however out of breath and exhausted. Cattelan’s childhood roots in Padua’s Workerist movement of the 1970s make his cynical appropriation of 1960s strategies of institutional critique a canny, twenty-first-century update on Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s “new spirit of capitalism.”
Finally, Megan Sullivan, Walter Benn Michaels, and Daniel Sánchez Bataller (all in Part Two) have written three essays in which questions about the nature of the work of art and how it will go forward within capitalism are being asked directly by the artist, or in which answers to such questions are being found by the author in the artist’s work. They cover very different moments in contemporary history. First and earliest, Sullivan considers the transition from modern to contemporary modes of thinking in the late 1950s, a challenging crisis that drove modernist Lygia Clark, in Brazil, toward mysticism. As a prehistory to the “participatory” art for which Clark has become a beloved figure in the contemporary art world, mysticism has world-denying implications worth considering.
Next, Michaels works both with and against the grain of the issue’s PMC thematic to consider “what there can be in art that isn’t reducible to the self-understanding of any class,” tracking an embrace and a heightening of the crucial role played by intentional action in any work of art through three historically distinct examples. From a discussion of abstract expressionism, he turns to focus on the meaningful correspondences between Rainer’s choreographic project in the 1960s and Welling’s photo series called Choreograph in 2020. Dances conceived in relation to photographs and photographs reliant on dance turn out to have an understanding and defense of “action” in common.
Lastly in this group, Bataller argues that in Sierra’s cold presentation of the abject levels laborers at the bottom of the economic food chain will go to in order to survive, we might also see a continuation of the modern realist tradition going back to the nineteenth century in which the concrete facts of exploitation are framed and arranged in such a way that they reveal what the basis for class-consciousness and political unity is whenever people who work organize themselves.
The university professional class today witnesses at close hand how damaging have been the erosion of state support for public institutions and the embrace of privatization under the PMC’s leadership, not only to the lowest earners but to much of the white-collar labor force as well.23 This experience alone might encourage us to ask whether the understanding of power we have been operating with since the 1960s has been stuck in a nineteenth-century model. Does power in fact lie only in the behavior and repressive culture of the exploitative and repressive bourgeoisie, the proverbial “owners of the means of production,” or is it also operative in the work of those obliged to chase after the scraps of their largesse? No art historian has, of course, ever claimed the art of the 1950s and 1960s was any less shaped by the structures enabling exploitation than the art of the 1850s and 1860s, but it seems to have been easier (or more pressing) to describe evidence of opposition to the ruling class and to capitalism in its old, traditional form (which of course does persist into the present), rather than look for insights into the new forms of capitalism with which most artists since the 1960s have been imbricated. Art history has been much more likely to argue, for example, affirmatively on behalf of artists for “moving away from the ideal of virtuosity and subjectivity that had come to be associated with the struggle for individual freedom, expression, and license.”24
We have been consistent, in other words, with the structuralist and poststructuralist paradigms that have held sway in the academy since the 1980s, and with the “networks, databases, platforms, and projects” romanticized since the turn of the millennium; but we have been inattentive to the ways these cornerstones “can reproduce structures of inequality.”25 The result, as Reed explained over twenty years ago, is a “tendency” to “emphasiz[e] the power of entrenched patterns of relations” and to “understate the space for meaningful human intervention in politics.”26 There is still a lot of work to do uncovering artists and intellectuals who did not subscribe to Michel Foucault’s monolithically passive notion of subjectivity as subjection, but I will end by asking us to consider Lane Relyea’s diagnosis of this problem in 2013. The old, negative, deterministic cast of “entrenched patterns” has morphed into a positive embrace of “constantly fluctuating networks,” he argues, asking (in solidarity with Reed) whether such structures “threaten certain conditions necessary for bringing about social justice, such as the stability and enclosure required for determining collectivities, or ‘wholes,’ that can be measured by, and held accountable to, the yardstick of across-the-board fairness?”27 The essays in this issue have been gathered in an effort to encourage critics and historians of contemporary art to let go of a mode of thought which repeatedly asserts patterns and systems as the answer, and instead think about and represent what intentional human intervention in the social and political world we actually inhabit looks and feels like.
NotesAcknowledgements: The thinking for this essay and special issue benefited from dialogue with the nine contributing authors, Becky Bivens, Nicholas Brown, Todd Cronan, Michael Corris, Lane Relyea, and Marnin Young.