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Responses to Neoliberal Aesthetics

Editor’s note: Walter Benn Michael’s “Neoliberal Aesthetics: Fried, Rancière and the Form of the Photograph,” published in our first issue, has generated responses from Michael Clune, Nicholas Brown, and Todd Cronan.

Michael Clune

Michael Clune writes:

Walter Benn Michaels’ “Neoliberal Aesthetics” centers on a powerful, and to my mind largely persuasive, argument about the compatibility of antiformalist aesthetics with neoliberal politics. My reservation concerns Michaels’ surprising characterization of the work of postmodern artists like John Cage as the outcome of the “radicalization” of absorptive aesthetics. This seems right only insofar as absorption is understood as subjective experience. If absorptive art simply tries to defeat theatricality in order to provide the beholder with a certain subjective experience, then it is easy to see how a complete liquidation of theatricality could entail the complete subordination of the work to the beholder. But it seems to me that Fried’s understanding of absorption is essentially phenomenological. That is, at least in his work through Absorption and Theatricality, Fried relies on the anti-Kantian tradition of phenomenological aesthetics in which the experience of art is precisely not the submission of the object to the subject, but a mode of experience in which both are subsumed by the work. This kind of experience has traditionally been described by analogy to the phenomenological logic of the ‘world,’ and is so indifferent to subjectivity, and so reliant on non-subjective structures to determine its features, that Ned Block, commenting recently on work by Alva Noe, has accused phenomenology of being essentially ‘behaviorist’ on this score.

While, like Block, I have serious reservations about phenomenology as an account of mind, I find it compelling as an account of artworks. It might be objected that if the phenomenological account of experience as such is incoherent, then its account of aesthetic experience must also be without value. My own impulse here is to return to Fried, and to suggest that while modernist art’s effort to defeat objecthood is not achievable in principle, the conviction of its success is obtainable in practice. This practical success is always contingent, often non-repeatable, and requires the kind of constant recalibration of artistic strategies that Fried’s history of French art illuminates. Things may be possible in art that are impossible without it.

I think this dimension of Fried’s criticism may be relevant to our political situation. Michaels diagnoses our situation as characterized by a conceptual lack: we lack a plausible economic analysis of class that can be made to serve a compelling vision of social transformation. Indeed, as Michaels demonstrates, the humanities model of social transformation has often proceeded by abandoning economic considerations entirely. Traces of the economic are still visible, to be sure, in the work of critics like Fredric Jameson. But this is an economics so disengaged from progressive left social science that its primary value is as a symptom of the ghettoization of the humanities, rather than as an instance of meaningful critique. (Only someone whose knowledge of economics comes primarily from the literature department, like Benjamin Kunkel in his recent LRB piece on David Harvey, could be shocked by the absence of reference to Capital in the left’s response to the recession.)

What can art do? I am a little skeptical that a solution to the current conceptual impasses will emerge from artistic practice and criticism. But if art has limited value in the analysis of the actual economy, its creation of absorbing virtual economies–and above all the demarcation of lines separating virtual from actual economies–does seem promising. What would happen if this line were made clearer, for example, in the tea party vision of the free market? Republicans and big business are already nervous enough about their ability to exploit these energies. What would happen if it could be made clearer that the vision of the free market that fascinates and energizes is a vision of a world that does not include unions, but that also does not include companies? In other words, is it an accident that the fiction of the free market should become so absorbing in the midst of the cataclysmic social destruction of the latest market failures? Isn’t this an index that something interesting is happening in the gap between actual and virtual economies?

It seems to me that these are the kind of urgent political questions that critics can answer. I pose them simply to suggest that the political work of art is not reducible either to the falsely egalitarian anti-formalist subjectivity Michaels criticizes, nor to the analytical objectivity he urges. One might radicalize Friedan absorption, both politically and aesthetically, without abandoning the commitment to form.

Nicholas Brown

Nicholas Brown writes:

Michael Clune is right not to be surprised that progressive economists have not been more interested in Marx. Consider the first chapter of Capital, the one most often returned to — for better and for worse — by literary and cultural critics. The central question there (or at least the question that becomes central for literary and cultural critics) is, speaking a bit casually, ontological: how does an object as commodity differ from the same object outside the field of large-scale exchange? The question is one of interpretation, a question that economists, when they are being economists, are not particularly concerned with; but questions of interpretation are what cultural critics, when they are being cultural critics, think about much of the time. This is not to say that Marx’s “strictly economic” analyses, inasmuch as these can be disentangled from Marx’s other concerns, are without value. Far from it. But even there Marxist analysis and, say, left Keynesianism (which are in fact, here and there, in productive conversation with each other, though largely outside the U.S.) are oriented towards entirely different ends. The Keynesian solutions to our current crisis — a mass of uninvestable capital confronting a mass of unemployable labor, which can be forced back together by means of a taxing and borrowing state — are abundantly available in Marx. But Marx was, of course, not interested in managing crises, but in demonstrating why they are inevitable and, in the very long run, unmanageable. The point I am trying to make is that if there is nothing very surprising in mainstream economics’s lack of interest in Marx, there is nothing particularly embarrassing about it, either on the part of Marxism or on the part of contemporary economics.

But to return to the first chapter of Capital. One way of understanding Marx’s analysis there is to say that in large scale commodity exchange, the site of intention shifts. If I make a bowl, it is a bowl because I wanted to make a bowl, and I will be concerned about all kinds of concrete attributes the bowl might have. If it is deep rather than shallow, metal rather than wood, these attributes are as they are because I intend them to be that way. If I make ten thousand bowls, I am primarily concerned only with one attribute, their exchangeability: that is, the demand for bowls. And that demand, and therefore all of the concrete attributes that factor into that demand, are decided elsewhere, namely on the market. So while I might still make decisions about my bowls, those decisions no longer matter as intentions even for me, because they are entirely subordinated to more or less informed guesses about other people’s desires. This is a dramatic simplification, but it will do for our present concerns, and it has obvious repercussions for cultural interpretation. If a work of art is not (or not only) a commodity, then it makes entirely good sense to approach it with interpretive tools, since it is intended to mean something. If a work of art is only a commodity, interpretive tools suddenly make no sense at all, since the form the object takes is determined elsewhere than where it is made, namely on the market. So it is not really that interpretation as such no longer makes any sense, so much as that interpreting the artwork no longer makes any sense. It is rather the desires represented by the market that are subject to analysis and elucidation.

It might seem absurd to say the art commodity is uninterpretable, but think for a moment of an industrial spectacle like Avatar. Of course the sight of critics producing a welter of completely incompatible (but also generally justifiable) interpretations was an amusing one that did not go unnoticed by the critics themselves. This empirical profusion is insignificant in itself: all of these interpretations could be wrong. But it is also possible that since the film is only concerned with producing a set of marketable effects, it cannot at the same time be concerned with producing the minimal internal consistency required to produce a meaning. And in fact, James Cameron himself is pretty clear that this is the case. When asked why female Na’vi have breasts, Cameron replies: “Right from the beginning I said, ‘She’s got to have tits,’ even though that makes no sense because her race, the Na’vi, aren’t placental mammals.” Cameron is more precise than he probably means to be when he says that “makes no sense.” When pressed further, Cameron says the female Na’vi have breasts “because this is a movie for human people.” In other words, people — enough of them anyway — will pay to see breasts, so the breasts go in. But this “makes no sense”: there is no point in interpreting it, because the salient fact is not that Cameron wanted them there but that he thought a lot of other people would want them there, and the wildly inconsistent ideology of the film is likewise composed of saleable ideologemes that together make no sense. This is not to say that all art commodities are similarly inconsistent: some audiences will pay for ideological or narrative or aesthetic consistency, so we have Michael Moore, middlebrow cinema, and independent film. But this consistency doesn’t add up to a meaning, since what looks like meaning is only an appeal to a market niche.

This is of course a very old line, the one taken by Adorno in his work on the culture industry and radicalized in Jameson’s thesis on postmodernism: Cameron’s ideological mishmash is Jameson’s “grab bag or lumber room of disjointed subsystems and raw materials and impulses of all kinds.” “The economic” in these Marxist analyses is, for better and for worse, not so much a question of distribution as it is of history: in the former case it is a matter of the increasing dominance of the market and in the latter case a matter of the closure of the market, which is to say its absolute dominance. The reason this might be interesting here is that this line can be translated into the terms of the present discussion: the late Marxist description of the distinction between artwork and art-commodity maps onto the Friedian description of the distinction between art and objecthood: the difference being simply that there is no internal contradiction in the avowed art-commodity’s claim to objecthood. At this point, if nowhere else, the Fried-Michaels and Adorno-Jameson critiques of postmodernism (by whatever name) coincide.

But a difficulty arises if we take the Jamesonian analysis seriously. As we saw above, the artwork requires, to be an artwork, a certain distance from the market. Even if the artwork is ultimately a commodity, it cannot be produced as a commodity if it is to remain an artwork. There must be some mechanism of insulation from the market in order for meaning to be produced in the work, and the Jamesonian claim is that this insulation has disappeared. The moment of “real subsumption,” to use a Marxian term of art, has arrived. That is, production processes, like the production of art, that were formerly only tributary to (“formally subsumed” under) capitalism as the dominant mode of production have become transformed into directly capitalist relations of production. Both Jamesonian and Friedian accounts of the history of form are roughly dialectical, assuming a tacit agreement among producers about what formal problem is central to a given medium. These accounts are then leapfrogging ones, in which each new work of art “solves” the problem by presenting it again in a new form. But this leapfrogging history also depends on upon a certain distance from the market. What is central is the problem to be addressed — a problem in which the general market has no interest — and all the old solutions are ruled out of bounds not because they are not nice to hang on a wall or to read, but because they have been absorbed into the game of producing new ones. Once market relations dominate all artistic production, as Jameson suggests, not only does meaning, even purely formal meaning or intention as such, become impossible, but a new kind of flat or null historicism becomes possible. All of the old “solutions,” each one of which had been invalidated by subsequent solutions, suddenly become available for use. (“Objecthood” is also liberated at this same moment: the reaction of the spectator assumes importance as the formal problem confronted by the artist recedes). But if artworks can now make use of all the old styles (or become objects), it is not clear why one would call them artworks at all, since the art commodity, precisely because it was more interested in the appeal to a market (the effect on an audience) than on formal problems, was able to make use of the old styles (or be an object) all along.

Of course, this is the point. And there is nothing implausible about a scenario in which artworks as such disappear, to be entirely replaced by art commodities, and in which the study of artworks would have to be replaced with the study of reception, of desires legible in the market, and so on. And indeed there is a deeply egalitarian promise in such a scenario, precisely because the formal concerns addressed by artworks are in general the province of a few — in the absence of a strong public education system, are necessarily the province of a few. The problem is that this is the world neoliberalism claims we already live in and have always lived in, a world where everything is a market. The old vanguardist horizon of equivalence between art and life reverses meaning and becomes deeply conformist.

Under these conditions, the claim to aesthetic autonomy is, in itself, a political claim. (A minimal one, to be sure.) This was not always the case. In the modernist period, for example, the assertion of autonomy produces, as it does now, the space for a critical distance on the social. But there is no natural political valence to this distance, since modernism does not make its way under anything like the dominance of market ideology that we experience today. Modernism is hostile to the culture market, but all kinds of politics (Heidegger as much as Adorno) are hostile to the market. Modernist hostility to the market only acquires a definite valence when (both to arrive at the economic as such and to use a few more Marxist terms of art) the claim of the universality of the market is, as it is today, the primary ideological weapon wielded in the class violence that is the redistribution of wealth upwards. If the claim to autonomy is today a minimal political claim, it is not for all that a trivial one. A plausible claim to autonomy is in fact the precondition for any politics at all other than the politics of acquiescence to the dictates of the market. The redistribution of wealth upwards in the current conjuncture would be unthinkable without precisely this acquiescence: the entire ideology of neoliberalism hinges on the assertion that this redistribution is what the market both produces and requires as a precondition.

But how to make the claim to autonomy plausible? In fact, it is the claim to total heteronomy that is implausible. Even actual markets — and this was recognized in some of the precursors to neoliberal discourse — depend on a host of non-market actors and institutions. And the whole point of Bourdieu’s discovery of the “restricted field” was to show how the valorization of cultural commodities depends on a complex set of non-market economies. If the old modernist autonomy has been revealed to be an aesthetic ideology, there is no reason to believe that the new heteronomy therefore represents the truth. Like modernist autonomy, it is a productive ideology: it frees artists to do something other than the old modernist games, and it allows them to work in the culture industry without facing the accusation of selling out, which now seems like an anachronistic accusation indeed. But that doesn’t mean that aesthetic heteronomy corresponds to the actual state of affairs, though it must refer to something real in order to be effective. And at any rate, it takes half a second to realize that both heteronomy and autonomy are, taken separately, deeply contradictory positions that could not be occupied by any actual cultural production worth talking about. Pure autonomy would have no interface with the world; pure heteronomy would be identical with the world. Rather, the question is: how and where is autonomy asserted, what are the mechanisms that make it possible? How, in short, does heteronomy produce or presume the autonomous?

I will suggest two answers, though of course both Fried and Jameson have their own solutions, with which readers will already be familiar. The first is what I will call, in search of a better term, positive historicism, as a necessary logical advance from null historicism or pastiche. As long as an artwork is making a claim to be an artwork, the very heteronomy proclaimed by historicism can only be the appearance of heteronomy. The “grab bag or lumber room” is only an apparent grab-bag or lumber-room; it is in fact governed by a principle of selection. If it is an actual grab bag or lumber room, it is the internet or an archive or simply everyday experience itself, and we don’t need artists for those. So in this case the legible element of form, its meaning — the moment of intention, in the terms of the present discussion — is not so much in the formal reduction of an art into the problem of its medium as it is in the process of framing: in the selection a particular formal or thematic problem as central, and the rewriting of the history of the medium or genre or even socio-cultural aesthetic field as the history of that problem. Possibly because of the one-time dominance of the album form, this solution is most abundantly audible in popular music. (Meanwhile, in large-format photography, precisely because it does open up an entirely new arena to be formally reduced to the problem of medium, this solution is less urgent). One of the best examples in music is the Brazilian Tropicália movement, one of the first pastiche postmodernisms. But it becomes obvious almost immediately that Tropicália’s “lumber room” is a national lumber room, and that the materials it cobbles together are only those materials that register formally what had been the thematic center of Brazilian modernism. Brazilian modernism had been concerned with the perverse coexistence of the archaic and the hypermodern typical of Brazil’s insertion into the world economy as a relatively wealthy peripheral economy. Tropicália, in turn, will scour the cultural landscape for forms that embody that perverse coexistence: for example, slave culture electrified in trio eléctrico or submitted to modernist compositional technique in bossa nova. The same historicist solution can be seen in the U.S. in, for example, the project of the White Stripes, which was essentially a theory of rock in musical form, and Cee-Lo Green’s latest album, which produces a history of that sliver of black music that for a time assumed a dominant presence in the mass market, from the girl groups of the early 1960s to Prince and Michael Jackson even Lionel Richie in the early 1980s.

A second possibility, which bears a family resemblance to the first but is closer in structure to Fried’s version of the problem than to Jameson’s, is the aestheticization of genre. In a recent discussion (not coincidentally, one in which Walter Benn Michaels also participated), David Simon points to genre fiction as the one place where stories other than the now-standard, character-driven, middle-to-highbrow family narratives can be reliably found. But why should genre fiction be a zone of autonomy? Isn’t genre fiction the quintessential art commodity? In an interview, this time with Nick Hornby, Simon repeatedly says, in various ways, “Fuck the average reader.” This is, of course, a completely modernist statement, an assertion of autonomy from the culture market. But how can someone who writes for TV possibly imagine himself autonomous from the culture market? Because a genre, already marketable or it wouldn’t be a genre, is also governed by rules. The very thing that invalidates genre fiction in relation to modernist autonomy opens up a zone of autonomy within the heteronomous space of cultural commodities. The requirements are rigid enough to pose a problem, which can now be thought of as a formal problem like the problem of the two-dimensionality of the canvas or the pull of harmonic resolution. “Subverting the genre” means doing the genre better, just as every modernist painting had to assume the posture of sublating all the previous modernisms. Simon’s only concession to the market is to the genre itself: Simon has to “solve the problem” of the police procedural — in other words, to produce a new way of satisfying the requirements of the genre — and he is free within that genre to use what narrative materials he likes. Ultimately, he is free to orient the entire work towards a plausible left project, namely a classically realist mapping of social space.

The assertion of autonomy implied in positive historicism, above, can lead to an attractive politics, as it does (not without ambivalence) in Tropicália, but it can also produce no legible politics at all beyond the minimal one entailed in the claim to autonomy (The White Stripes, Cee-Lo). Similarly, even when the aestheticization of genre doesn’t lead to an obviously attractive politics, it does lead to better art, or rather to the possibility of art as such — a possibility which, I have tried to show, today itself entails a minimal politics. A time-travel narrative can only have one of two endings: either history can be changed, or it can’t. So the problem of the time-travel flick is how to keep these two incompatible possibilities in play until the end, and if possible even beyond the end, so you can have a sequel. And James Cameron can, within this genre, make all kinds of intentional choices that can only be read as intentional choices, because they can only be understood as manipulations of a formal problem. And Terminator II can be a work of art, while Avatar is only an art commodity.

Todd Cronan

Todd Cronan writes:

The question remains how or why (artistic) autonomy is virtual. Is it because works are so compromised by their standing in the market that any autonomously inspired gesture will automatically find its fulfillment in commodity form? That’s to put the bar on “free action” pretty high. If a Jackson Pollock or Morris Louis is not an instance of autonomy (and not a virtual model of it), what is?  Clune characterizes or replays a position made popular in the 1920s by Mondrian and El Lissitzky–an alternately pessimistic and euphoric moment–wherein works of art were construed as “models” for living (or for the economy, as Malevich saw it) and not the living itself (the “actual”). The risk this position holds, and it’s a similar problem to the one I raise with Brown below, is to conceive a work as devoid of risk. What’s the challenge of imagining a work as a utopian model? The danger is always in succeeding in one’s aim (not having one) and therefore always failing.

Brown suggests that modernist autonomy was the pursuit of “critical distance on the social” and that autonomy is still a good thing if we’re not to “acquiesce to the dictates of the market.” That is, if our society were a bit more autonomously minded we would not capitulate so easily to neoliberal orthodoxies. Brown mainly wonders how autonomy can be possible (again) given the near total heteronomy by the market. For Brown, autonomy is a historicist question (market expansion makes it more difficult today than in the past) and bears a historicist answer (a few options remain, but they’re important to sustain).

Brown’s analysis rests on the view that artworks and markets are not only at odds with one another but that this conflict generates the problem of autonomy to begin with. This is, of course, a guiding assumption in the work of Greenberg (at least early on), Adorno and Jameson. That a work “cannot be produced as a commodity if it is to remain an artwork” assumes that a work is something defined by its negative relation to exchange. But if we assume this “dialectical” rule, the game is ceded in advance to historicism. The “subsumption” thesis and everything that follows from it—“market relations dominate all artistic production” as well as the idea there’s a little space left for self-legislation—can only follow if we take it as a motivating factor of modernism that artists were defining their practices (consciously or not) against the market. Fried, for instance, makes no claim, as far as I can tell, about “what formal problem is central to a given medium” nor about the dialectical ‘solving of artistic problems’—that’s Greenberg and Fried disagreed with him on this point. That’s to say, there’s no medium based problem that historically unfolds or (quasi)determines the moves from Chardin to Douglas Gordon. Brown’s account assumes a historicist logic of problem solving (as modes of attaining autonomy) and if we do assume that aim then it will indeed fail in advance—the expansion of capitalist markets will and have destroyed the sequence of naïve wishes to stay free of the market—and postmodernism, and limited responses to it, are the result. The old medium-specific problems are all “absorbed” into the market (if artists assumed some externality to begin with) and a “flat or null historicism” emerges as the neoliberal dream/nightmare.

But what if autonomy is not a historical question, but a human one? One that might entail a kind of new pressure in the modern period, but that was a standing issue for Rousseau as it is for artists today? What if it doesn’t obey any specific logic (openings and closures, etc.), but constantly threatens action? That is, what if historicism is another word for heteronomy—a way to neutralize the burden of making decisions? And theatricality is another word for the way we make the world autonomous to our intentions.