Pop Art and the Fictional Middle Class
For Marx, crucially, class is a social relationship rather than an identity, and so in a very real sense classes do not exist within capital outside the two major contending ones of the bourgeoisie (who own capital and live off its proceeds) and the proletariat (who possess only their own labor power, and thus must serve capital). This is perhaps most clear in Marx’s account of the class position held most dear by U.S. proponents of capitalism, the middle class. For Marx, writing in the mid-nineteenth century, this means the petit bourgeoisie of small property owners. Marx sees this intermediate class not as structural but as transitional, bound under pressures of the increasing concentration of capital either to ascend to bourgeois status or, more likely, fall into the proletariat. Thus Marx and Engels write in The Communist Manifesto that
The lower strata of the middle class—the small tradespeople, shopkeepers, and retired tradesmen generally, the handicraftsmen and peasants—all these sink gradually into the proletariat, partly because their diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale on which Modern Industry is carried on, and is swamped in the competition with the large capitalists, partly because their specialized skill is rendered worthless by new methods of production. Thus the proletariat is recruited from all classes of the population.1
From the perspective of the long-running decline of small property ownership as the guarantor of middle-class status—a transformation that whole industries of sociology and revisionist Marxism have been established to describe—what is perhaps most interesting in this brief passage is Marx and Engels’s reference to “specialized skill” as a middle-class property alongside “their diminutive capital.” This might seem to point forward to the white-collar future in which management of others or intellectual labor takes over as the characteristic economic role of the middle-class. Of course, we might also recall that having one’s “specialized skill … rendered worthless by new methods of production” is quite simply the fate of the proletariat under capital. From this perspective the petit bourgeoisie is, as it were, already proletariat, just not aware that this is the case. It takes longer for capital to figure out how to deskill and dispossess mental laborers than it takes it to do so for, say, hand-weavers. But as anyone who currently works in the academy knows, it can be done.
I begin with this point to suggest the stakes for contemporary academics in what I will argue is the U.S. art world’s displaced reckoning with questions of middle-class status in the early 1960s. As I have argued elsewhere, what we think of as postmodernism is a universalized picture of middle-class experience that emerges in both the literary and fine arts worlds of the 1960s as a displaced register of white-collar proletarianization. As one example of this phenomenon I adduce readings of Andy Warhol’s work as about the content of commodification, when in fact what is most interesting about Warhol’s art is the way it insistently thematizes the artist’s own position as someone undergoing deskilling alongside processes of automation.2 In fact, Warhol’s Factory is even more richly symbolic of the transitional nature of the postwar white-collar middle class, insofar as it embeds a crucial ambiguity: is Warhol the owner of the factory, or just one of the workers on print-making assembly lines? Given Warhol’s early participation in the transformation of famous artists to wealthy capitalists producing (or overseeing their employees’ production) for the investment market, one is tempted to say the former, even as the work itself insists upon the latter. But this is in fact precisely what makes Warhol’s work resonant in this regard: it perfectly captures the nature of the middle class as not an eternal formation but a temporary standpoint, supported at times by more or less effective institutional scaffolding, between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.
Warhol’s trajectory as a working-class Pittsburgh boy turned commercial illustrator turned New York art world icon, we might say, primed him to be particularly attuned to the class dynamics of postwar artistic labor, and particularly able to make them visible. But in fact, I’d like to argue, these dynamics are central to the emergence of pop art in general—in a very real way, they are pop art. Consider, to take the second-most famous example, Roy Lichtenstein. Lichtenstein’s Upper West Side upbringing couldn’t be more different from Warhol’s, and he also has the more conventionally narratable twentieth-century artistic career: an early stage of working in then-conventional styles (Cubism and Expressionism), a sold-out show at Leo Castelli in 1962, and then (following a visit to Warhol’s studio) the breakthrough to a new style with the pastiches of comic book art that remain his most famous work. This narrative is, of course, not entirely true, since Lichtenstein’s 1961 Girl with Ball already looks like his reproduced comic book panels. (You have to know that it’s based on an advertisement for a resort in the Poconos.) But the prominence of works like Drowning Girl and Whaam! (both 1963, the first based on a 1962 panel by Tony Abruzzo and the second on a 1962 panel by Irv Novick3) is so great that it effaces the fact that by the mid-sixties Lichtenstein had already begun a turn to pastiches of modernist high art such as his de Kooningesque 1982 Woman II. In 2013 Woman II sold at Christie’s for about three million dollars, around 90 million less than his 1964 Nurse (based on a panel by Arthur Peddy) realized at the auction house two years later. But Lichtenstein’s return to abstract expressionism is in some ways completely unsurprising, given that he saw himself as participating in a project continuous with abstract expressionism. Noting that “Lichtenstein methodically stressed his debt to de Kooning and described his own work almost as if it were Action Painting,” Michael Kimmelman quotes the artist as saying, “My style looks completely different [from that of the abstract expressionists], but the nature of putting down lines pretty much is the same. Mine just don’t come out looking calligraphic.”4
If we take seriously Lichtenstein’s sense that he was participating in a shared project with abstract expressionism, then we arrive, I think, at the conclusion that the art world has correctly valued his paintings, although not for the reasons it supposes. As Anthony Grudin argues, Lichtenstein’s paintings “work hard to make their sources palatable, to aestheticize them, to render them acceptable for the walls of a penthouse or a museum.”5 But while Lichtenstein repaints the mass produced panels of various comic book artists at museum size in order to assert his own agency as a singular artist, he also unavoidably expands the panels and makes us linger on them in a way that reveals, in a phrase we might appropriate against the grain of Clement Greenberg’s intended meaning, “all that [is] unique in the nature of [their] medium.”6 And this is an industrial medium, as registered most directly by Lichtenstein’s representation of Ben-Day dots, which form the basis of a cheap printing process developed in 1879 by Benjamin Henry Day, Jr. that subsequently became central to mid-century comic book publishing. Comic book colorists used dots in four colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) to create, through spacing, the illusion of a variety of colors, but Lichtenstein’s canvases disrupt the illusion to make the dots themselves unavoidably visible. In this and other ways they call attention to the collaborative, industrial process of comic book production that Lichtenstein’s own painting hand can only ever fail to cover over: a process in which often one person draws, one person inks, another colors, and another hand draws letters in word balloons—letters written by yet a fifth person.7 In the early sixties, moreover, comic books—especially those in the war and romance genres favored by Lichtenstein—did not always credit these creators, and even those like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko at Marvel who did get credit for their art still worked for hire on intellectual properties owned by others. Here it’s notable that after his 1961 Look Mickey, which featured a recognizable Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck reproduced from Carl Buettner’s 1960 Little Golden Book Donald Duck: Lost and Found, Lichtenstein turned to the anonymous men and women of his later work. Lichtenstein, one suspects, might have realized that if the artists he relentlessly cribbed were not in a position to sue him, Walt Disney was another matter.
In all these ways Lichtenstein alludes to the economic relations that shape the work of comic book, as opposed to fine, artists in the early 1960s, even as he in his own way exploits this labor as surely as Disney and (the then-separate) Marvel did. As Bart Beaty describes in detail, Lichtenstein has long been a target of resentment among comics creators and fans, who see him as undermining the seriousness of the medium by mining it for kitsch or—even more threateningly for what was and to a certain extent remains a male homosocial community—camp.8 But as Beaty also makes clear, beneath this concern, which is based upon the standard culturalist account of Lichtenstein’s project, there is a more directly economic one: Lichtenstein became famous, and bought a house on Long Island, from a series of paintings that reproduced with no attribution the designs of other artists. He did so, moreover, at a time when comics artists such as Jack Kirby themselves had no rights to their original artwork created on a for-hire basis. Without letting him off the hook for his appropriations, we can say that Lichtenstein’s comic book pastiches are interesting precisely because they reproduce work done by artists who are already structurally proletarianized via the nature of their industry, which was born in sweatshops rather than studios.
With this in mind we can perhaps disentangle the many threads that Beaty brings together in his account of the relationship between Lichtenstein and the comics world. Beaty titles his essay “Roy Lichtenstein’s Tears” in part because of the anecdote with which he begins, a possibly apocryphal story told by Irv Novick, the artist whose work Lichtenstein appropriated for Whaam!, about encountering Lichtenstein in the army during World War II. In this story, Novick finds Lichtenstein “crying like a baby” because “he was an artist … and he had to do menial work.” Although he finds Lichtenstein’s work “rather poor and academic,” he “g[ets] on the horn and g[ets] him a better job.” As Beaty argues, Novick’s 1998 story is a way of asserting his superiority in the wartime sphere of masculinity, and of “feminiz[ing] … the realm of pop art in relation to the world of comics.”9
Of course, recasting artistic work as agentive, physical labor was one way in which postwar artists sought to recoup the masculine middle-class status threatened by absorption into the Organization, as Jackson Pollock’s persona and insistence on the physicality of his work make clear.10 It’s impossible, that is to say, to separate gender from class in Novick’s story, which criticizes Lichtenstein’s work as “academic” (i.e., beholden to the standards of the Organization) and Lichtenstein himself as unable to handle the world of hard work. Indeed, in describing a tearful Lichtenstein as cast into the realm of “menial labor,” Novick’s revenge fantasy arguably intuits something crucial here: he thinks he’s better than me, but he’s just a worker too. By contrast, Lichtenstein claims the status of the artist by ignoring/profiting from the labor of others doing the same thing. While Lichtenstein’s death in 1997 meant that he missed the nine-figure payouts that made artists like Damien Hirst, Anish Kapoor, and Jeff Koons hundred-millionaires, he remains one of the postwar artists who escaped upward into the bourgeoisie rather than falling into the proletariat.
And yet, as I argue above, Lichtenstein’s art unintentionally but no less unavoidably figures the state of the postwar middle class. This class’s material gains were upheld not by the nature of its members’ work—which in other precincts figured as poorly remunerated labor—but by institutions that redistributed (in imperfect, frequently racist manners) the fruits of the postwar economic boom: the Federal Housing Administration, the VA (which administered the GI Bill), strong unions, well-funded universities. Lichtenstein captures this state of simultaneous privilege and vulnerability in his paintings, even as he proves himself perfectly willing to profit from the uncompensated or acknowledged labor of his fellow artists. Indeed, it’s tempting to say that Novick’s criticism of Lichtenstein’s work as “academic” only finds its true meaning proleptically, pointing to the current moment when proletarianization has finally come for tenure track academics, after a period in which many of them failed to make common cause with—in part because their own privileges were for a while upheld by—the proletarianized adjuncts in their own departments. Lichtenstein’s comic book pastiches of course come at the beginning of this long history, a history in which tenure-track creative writers—as Mark McGurl’s 2009 The Program Era makes clear—were perhaps the final strong proponents of the organization man discourse, continuing well into the twenty-first century to lament the supposed inhibiting effects of their secure, remunerative positions.11 All members of the middle class felt like this in the early sixties, the period before the wolf started coming for them one by one. Capturing this moment all the more perfectly because they enact, and enable Lichtenstein to profit from, this denial, his comic book pastiches demonstrate the non-identity of the ethical and the aesthetic: ethically questionable at best, they are aesthetic masterpieces.
To reiterate, it is the effort to imagine some essential middle-class position outside the proletarianizing imperatives of capitalism that links abstract expressionism and Pop. Capitalism makes a small number of people wealthy and requires that everyone else sell their labor to capital: that is what makes it capitalism. Institutions can create situations under which some people sell their labor on better terms, and this is what it means to be middle-class—a position that is neither structural nor eternal. It is thus all the more ironic that the postwar U.S. middle class defined itself in opposition to institutions, and sought instead to reimagine forms of good work as grounded in either the agentive masculinity of physical work or the supposedly meritocratic testing ground of the market. Abstract expressionism was the perfect fulfilment of this fantasy: focused on the physical act of painting, it produced large canvases whose value was ratified not only by criticism but by sales. Pop art complicated the gender dynamics of this relationship by introducing the feminized world of consumer culture, but not every pop artist was as committed as Warhol was to embracing the world of commercial art at the level of form. A significant number—perhaps most famously Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns—retained a distinction between the content of the mass culture they reproduced and the painterly techniques with which they reproduced it.
Yet Warhol’s industrial processes and Robert Rauschenberg’s incorporation of everyday materials also point to something important about pop art’s relationship to capital, a dynamic that anticipates the erstwhile commodity trader Jeff Koons’s transformation into an employer who realizes nine-figure profits on work produced by designers earning around $60,000 a year and painters earning $22 an hour—although in recent years he has been laying off employees whose work can be automated.12 The coincidence of these layoffs with Koons’s move from Chelsea to Hudson Yards—a one-time railyard turned upscale residential and shopping development—is obviously deeply resonant here. But in fact Koons’s maintenance of a studio is already somewhat anachronistic—a somewhat more literal version of Warhol’s Factory as metaphor—over against the rise of the art fabrication industry that has for the past forty years been providing outsourced services for artists ranging from Lichtenstein and Rauschenberg to Koons and Charles Ray.13 Here are the two poles of contemporary art: on one hand, Kehinde Wiley’s reticence about discussing his Beijing studio (which “cuts costs, but not as much as it used to”) because he doesn’t want people “to know every aspect of where my hand starts and ends”14 ; on the other, Ellsworth Kelly’s use of arts fabricating services “to ‘take the hand out’ of his large-scale sculptures and wall works.”15
In other words, we’ve arrived at something like the concrete economic terminus prefigured in the way Rauschenberg’s early collages and found-object sculptures already anticipated not only Pop but conceptualism as well. Joshua Clover, thinking about the twentieth-century work of neo-conceptualist poets like Vanessa Place and Kenneth Goldsmith, argues that conceptualism as a form signals both economic boom (figured as the fulness of the commodity world) and its attendant crisis whereby economic concentration inevitably leads to falling profits (figured as automation). In the words of Douglas Huebler, cited by Clover, “The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.” Clover proposes a historicizing reading of conceptualism’s two phases:
The two conceptualisms are, we must finally concede, both languages of the boom. But there is a difference in the two moments, a difference between the long post-war boom which made a home for conceptualism, and the FIRE sector bubbles encompassing neo-conceptualism. One expansion did indeed proliferate objects; the other, objectless services, data management, and purportedly value-productive discourse.16
It is in this newer phase, Clover argues, that we find Vanessa Place’s poetry composed of transcripts of cases on which she herself served as a defense attorney: an appropriation of the “highly-trained professional” labor of court reporters performed against the backdrop of the computer-driven deskilling and automation of the legal profession.17
Except, of course, that this brings us right back to Lichtenstein’s own appropriation of others’ trained professional labor, undergirded in his case as in Place’s by their comparatively privileged position in professional hierarchies. Here again we see how mid-twentieth-century art anticipates a more general process of white-collar deskilling that is structurally no different from the forms of deskilling that produced factory laborers in an early period of capitalism but simply takes longer to reach the hearts of complex professions like academia or the law. In all cases it works its way towards these professions through their own tendency to sort themselves into (frequently feminized) status hierarchies. This is in no way a twenty-first-century phenomenon, but was already present in the rapid expansion of white-collar work at the very outset of the post-World War II economic boom. Thus C. Wright Mills could write in 1951 that
As professional people of both old and new middle classes become attached to institutions, they acquire staffs of assistants, who, in contrast to the old professional apprentices, are not necessarily or even usually in training to become autonomous professionals themselves. Thus physicians hand over some of their work to trained nurses, laboratory technicians, physical therapists. … Law partners give their less challenging tasks to clerks and salaried associates. Individual scholars in the universities become directors of research, with staffs doing specialized functions, while the remaining individual scholar takes over some of the awe and receptiveness toward the expert who manages his specialized and narrow domain.18
Plus ça change. Clover is of course right that the first wave of conceptualism in the late 1960s and early 1970s was committed to objects, but this commitment was already nostalgic—indeed had been in the late 1940s, when it figured itself for the expressionists as the obduracy of paint and canvas.
In her superb recent book on the performance artists Yvonne Rainer, Carolee Schneemann, and Vito Acconci, Elise Archias sets these artists apart from the dominant Pop aesthetic’s “embrace of the low” and “the ordinary.”19 While the promoters of pop art saw it as reanimating a sense of “premodern wonder” around contemporary consumer culture, this art ran “the risk of simply reproducing, endorsing, or making palatable the boredom, shallowness, and aggravations of modern consumer culture, rather than refiguring it in a way that undermines them” (CB 10). By contrast, Archias argues, Rainer, Schneemann, and Acconci in their own different ways all sought to “slow[ ] the audience’s process of perception and apprehension” (CB 10) and thereby revive a traditionally modernist sense of the dialectical interplay between “immediate physicality on the one hand, and participation in the abstract languages and systems of human communication on the other” (CB 13). In this way they restored art’s critical potential while also, not incidentally, relocating the hardness of the material from the masculinist world of physical labor to the much more inclusively gendered realm of bodily experience.
Archias’s book is a helpful reminder that not all artists participate in their era’s dominant trend—even if we often have to look closely to see how some artists depart—and that it is often among the outliers that the most interesting work is being done. But here I’d like to linger with Pop and related movements, to flesh out what they’re doing besides just uncritically reproducing consumer culture. What is also happening in this moment, across a variety of seemingly disparate movements, is that, as Allan Kaprow notes in his landmark 1958 essay on Pollock, art is aggressively expanding beyond its traditional bounds:
Pollock’s choice of great sizes resulted in our being confronted, assaulted, sucked in. Yet we must not confuse these with the hundreds of large paintings done in the Renaissance. They glorified an everyday world quite familiar to the observer, often, in fact, by means of trompe l’oeil, continuing the actual room into the painting. Pollock offers us no such familiarity and our everyday world of convention and habit is replaced by that one created by the artist. Reversing the above procedure, the painting is continued on out into the room.20
Kaprow sees this aspect of Pollock’s work, in anticipation of his own happenings, as re-enchanting the everyday world beyond the canvas. But two things are worth noting. First, Kaprow situates this argument as a response to the feeling that, with Pollock’s death in 1956, modern art had finally been played out, that “it had become dull and repetitious qua the ‘advanced’ style, or large numbers of formerly committed contemporary painters were defecting to earlier forms.” Secondly, and relatedly, he posits the solution to this dilemma in active expansion into new territory. Against the claim that “the jig was up” for avant-garde art, Kaprow argues that Pollock had “destroyed painting,” thereby pointing the way to expressions of the avant-garde impulse not bound by traditional forms.21
Here is a riddle whose answer is hopefully obvious: what else experiences an inevitably falling rate of return and must therefore always expand to stay in operation? It is with Kaprow’s 1958 appreciation of Pollock, I’d like to suggest, that we see the dialectical tendency of modern art in conflict with its critical potential: its inclination to mimic the logic of capital itself. Within these terms we can understand the art of the early sixties as enacting a series of strategies for primitive accumulation: of consumer culture, of “low” art, of everyday life. Each of these in turn is transformed into art, and then, in the case of successful artists like Lichtenstein and Warhol, art is transformed into capital. But we’re here only on the cusp of the world that will give us artists like Koons and Hirsch as literal capitalists and art, in the words of an executive at Deloitte Luxembourg, “as an asset class.”22 And in this moment, the artist’s work is still configured precisely as a kind of white-collar labor, the labor of collating the work of others (Lichtenstein), of overseeing automated processes (Warhol), of setting up conditions in which others will carry out their tasks (Kaprow).
Here it might make sense to end with the career of Seth Siegelaub, the art curator whose show January 5–31, 1969 featured Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, and Lawrence Weiner and was crucial for establishing conceptualism as an art-world force. As its title suggests, this show ran for only one month, in a temporary space in Midtown Manhattan. It was thus designed to be ephemeral, or rather to exist primarily in the form of the catalogue, which consisted of instructions and installation photographs, as well as Huebler’s famous statement. Intended as “a direct critique of traditional art institutions,”23 the exhibition took on the material form of a quintessentially white-collar document. While everyone remembers the first part of Huebler’s statement, about his lack of desire to add more objects to a world already full of them, less often cited is its concluding sentence: “This documentation takes the form of photographs, maps, drawings and descriptive language.”24 Far from dematerializing the exhibition, that is to say, the catalogue in fact insists on the materiality of the artist’s white-collar labor. This is unsurprising given Siegelaub’s previous project: a collection of works on paper by Barry, Kosuth, Huebler, Weiner, Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt, and Robert Morris called Xerox Book (LL).25
A classic critic of institutions in the postwar white-collar mode, Siegelaub would, in 1970, go on to co-author another handbook with the lawyer Robert Projansky: The Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement, or The Artist’s Contract, a model contract designed to protect the artist’s rights in the sale and exhibition of their work. The handwritten manifesto which Siegelaub composed prior to The Artist’s Contract, and which is (ironically) in the collection of Siegelaub’s papers at MoMA, begins “There is not art without you” but warns that “you definitely have no freedom or rights or controls after you make your art.” Instead this control is held by “the art world,” by “critics, magazines, museums, and collectors” who “trade their today against your (potential immortality) tomorrow.” This is the case because “you have allowed the sale of your art to be the only way to receive direct compensation from the use of your art” (LL).
If the solidly left-wing Siegelaub here sounds like Ayn Rand, this is, finally, because of the structural conditions which, I have been arguing, the art world of the 1960s intuits only to disavow. Selling your art for compensation is the position of the petit bourgeoisie, which always threatens to become the proletarianized position of the work-for-hire artists like Ernie Colón whose panels Lichtenstein appropriated. What Siegelaub’s manifesto grasps here is that structurally there is no difference between a Colón and a Lichtenstein, beyond the institutions that allow the latter to strike a better bargain. The solution, however, is, in absolutely typical postwar terms, to disavow institutions altogether, and instead reconfigure the artist as an entrepreneur working for himself on the market. The manifesto concludes with a series of questions for the artist, beginning, “Would it be possible for you to sell just an 80% interest and possession in a work of art and still retain for yourself 20%, plus aesthetic and exhibition control” (LL)? This is a modest enough proposal, but at its logical conclusion lies control over intellectual property, the need, in the words of Jay-Z—back from retirement and a stint as President of Def-Jam, now transformed from a “businessman” into “a business, man”—to “own your masters.”26 The answer to Siegelaub’s question has proven to be, as in capital more generally, the one Marx and Engels told us to expect in 1848: that this is indeed possible for a small minority who achieve their aspirations and, rather than falling into the proletariat, are instead raptured into the realm of the bourgeoisie.
The problem, then, with pop art’s representation of consumer culture is not only that it simply reproduces, as Archias says, the conditions of this culture, but that in doing so it engages with symptoms of capitalism rather than its overarching structure. Moreover, if abstract expressionism offered an imagined individualistic resolution to the constraints on labor under capitalism, pop art increasingly embraces PMC labor as a path to—rather than a constraint on—such individual expression. In this way Pop models the U.S. middle class’s shift, over the second half of the twentieth century, from a displaced critique of capitalism to an embrace of capitalism as the ironic cure for the problems it itself creates. Thus Grudin argues that while Warhol’s early work demonstrated a critical sense of postwar consumer culture’s address to working class consumers, the artist ultimately embraced a form of privatized, flexible, self-motivating labor totally compatible with neoliberal capitalism (or, we might simply say, capitalism). Warhol went, that is to say, from critiquing brands to making himself into one.
This form of self-branding of course worked well for Warhol, who became an early avatar of art world superstardom. In this respect, Warhol was not wrong to understand his life as itself a form of artwork, in the sense that his upward mobility—both spectacular and uncommon—created, like pop art more generally, a vision of PMC flourishing increasingly at odds with shrinking middle-class opportunities for upward mobility. Cases like those of Hirst, Koons, and Jay-Z in the nearer present, however, are so glaring in their level of spectacular overcompensation—in their mimicry of contemporary class division more generally—that they make it harder for us to invest in the lie. Herein lies at least the possibility of class consciousness. In this respect the early 1960s set in motion a transformation in the nature of art which, now coming to fruition, means that art has, after modernism, recovered its mission of critically re-presenting the world—no longer in individual works, but in the shape of the art world itself.