What We Worry About When We Worry About Commodification: Reflections on Dave Beech, Julian Stallabrass, and Jeff Wall
The project of Dave Beech’s Art and Value: Art’s Economic Exceptionalism in Classical, Neoclassical and Marxist Economics is to clear up some of the muddle and confusion that surround the word, concept, or perhaps merely trope of the “commodification” of the arts.1 Beech begins his essay with the observation that nearly everyone seems to agree “in the most ardent terms that art is, always has been, or has recently become nothing but a commodity” (1). No doubt Tyler Cowen and Fredric Jameson have different takes on what that might mean, but the convergence—which Beech is not alone in remarking—is startling. Skeptical about the possibility of art’s commodification, Beech sets out to evaluate the “claim that art production coincides with capitalist commodity production” (3)—in three discourses: classical economics, neoclassical economics, and Marxism.
Admirably, Beech, in order to take the commodification thesis seriously, requires some kind of “mechanism” or mediation that would plausibly subsume art under the commodity form. This proves difficult in classical economics. The account is easy to summarize, though Beech’s account is full of complexity and useful detail. Simplifying: classical economics can only treat the value of art as some version of a monopoly price, since its economic value—thinking here primarily of what we now call the secondary market in the visual and plastic arts—cannot be derived from inputs. This is interesting, and art is indeed exceptional, but in a way that will ultimately be unsatisfactory for Beech’s purposes, as the “exceptionalism” of art puts it in the same category as fine wines, relics, or rare stamps, which turn out amusingly to be among the small set of examples to which classical economics perennially returns.
Neoclassical economics, on the other hand, in its most radical (that is, most interesting) form, cannot—is designed not to—treat art as exceptional, with counterintuitive (or loony) consequences. But on its own account, the looniness of the consequences is not a bug of neoclassicism, but a feature. Since neoclassical economics derives price from a demand curve, rather than value from inputs, it “permits of no economic exceptions of the classical type” (104). George Stigler and Gary Becker, for example, want to argue that “widespread and/or persistent human behavior can be explained by a generalized calculus of utility-maximizing behavior, without introducing the qualification ‘tastes remaining the same’” (1977, qtd 110). This last de-qualification is important, because it is there that the work of art loses its extra-economic and genuinely exceptional character. We don’t have to introduce constant taste as an artificial boundary condition; taste needn’t come into the matter at all. It is not that working through one artwork will open up meanings and possibilities previously undisclosed in others; it is rather that the “increase in music capital,” for example, associated with listening to music “increases the productivity of time spent listening to music” (qtd 111). Quality is transformed into quantity, and aesthetic judgment, Kant’s “judgment of taste,” is transformed into utility-maximizing behavior all the way down, as the “shadow cost” (qtd 112) of musical difficulty decreases with exposure. Beech (or I) might protest that this misses the specificity of art altogether, that “to suppose no alteration of character and taste in the experience of art is to suppose no genuine experience of art at all” (117). To which Stigler and Becker would presumably reply that if observable behavior can be explained without the concept of a “genuine experience of art,” there is no reason to suppose the latter exists.
So what Beech shows in this chapter is not so much that art remains exceptional even within neoclassical economics (where it looks something like an “addictive good”) but rather what a world where the work of art was a commodity like any other would look like: a world where there are no aesthetic judgments, only preferences to which the market responds. The logic of a market economy is such that “consumer sovereignty” pertains: “Consumers’ preferences… can be regarded as the ‘determining’ factor… [and] may be said, therefore, to have logical ‘priority’ over the other elements in the situation—viz., in the sense in which ends can be ‘prior’ to means” (L.M. Fraser  qtd. 120). Needless to say, “the artist has a very pragmatic interest in maintaining his or her hostility to the market” (123).
The middle of the book takes an historical turn, contrasting the postwar Keynesian treatment of art with the neoliberal turn against it. Keynes himself was the first chairman of the Arts Council, and under his leadership the Council supported public funding for the arts that was “not only removed from the political process, but was protected from the market mechanism too” (132). But Keynes and in the U.S., more explicitly, Galbraith, do not advocate this position based on an analysis of art as economically exceptional; they do so based on an understanding of art as excepted from the economic. Galbraith calls for art policy “to subordinate economic to aesthetic goals—to sacrifice efficiency… to beauty. Nor must there be any apologetic nonsense about beauty paying in the long run. It need not pay” (J.K. Galbraith , qtd. 148). Needless to say, the relevant thesis of what we now think of neoliberalism is almost precisely the opposite of this: art must pay. The subsequent chapter discusses the neoloberal reaction against public support for the arts after 1966. If art is exempted from economic rationality, then from the standpoint of economic rationality public arts funding is simply a cost without a benefit. If art is to be subsidized, it should “take the form of vouchers so as to maximize consumer sovereignty and reduce government monopoly” (Ruth Towse  paraphrasing Alan Peacock, qtd. 160). Of course this would do the opposite of what public funding for the arts is meant to do, as art that already thrives on the market will do better, and art that does badly in the market will do worse. But once you have said this, you have said exactly what neoclassicism says: “catering for merit wants… is directed, not to the satisfaction of consumer sovereignty, but to the interference with it” (Edwin West and Michael McKee , qtd. 167).
With Marx the problem becomes more interesting since, on Beech’s account, Marx “understands precisely that artistic production must be classified as outside capitalist commodity production” (185) altogether. Beech undertakes an extensive and astute reading of Marx’s fragment “Results of the Immediate Production-Process,” written for the third draft of Capital and printed as an appendix to Ben Fowkes’s English translation. Let us go straight to the source: “books, paintings, and all art-products as distinct from the artistic performance of the artist at work” are the product of a particular kind of labor, namely “non-material production” that “results in commodities that stand apart from the producer, so they can circulate as commodities in the interval between production and consumption.”2 About such products Marx is clear: “Here capitalist production is practicable to a very limited extent. Unless a sculptor (for example) engages journeymen or the like, most [artists] work (when not independently) for merchant’s capital, for example a bookseller, a relationship that constitutes only a transitional form toward merely formally capitalist production.” (R 133 / C 1048).
In a nearby passage, Marx tells us that “A singer who sings like a bird is an unproductive worker” (R 128-29 / C 1044), an easily misunderstood term that simply means her work does not valorize capital: she produces beauty, but does not take part in a process that yields surplus value. “If she sells her singing for money, she is to that extent a wage laborer or a dealer in commodities” (R 129 / C 1044), depending on whether she is employed by a bandleader, say, or works independently. “But this same singer, engaged by an entrepreneur who has her sing for money, is a productive worker, since she directly produces capital.” (R 129 / C 1044). Only at the last stage has her labor undergone the “the subsumption by capital of a mode of labor developed before the emergence of capitalist relations, which we call the formal subsumption of labor under capital” (R 101 / C 1021). Her employer might extend the working day—make her perform more often for the same pay—but it is hard to imagine the entrepreneur ploughing a portion of profits back into transforming “the real nature of the labor process and its real conditions” (R 117 / C 1034-5)—automation, deskilling, and so on. “Only when this occurs does the real subsumption of labor under capital take place” (R 117 / C 1035), and only with real subsumption do we enter the permanent revolution of the capitalist production process. As far as the commodification of art is concerned, we have nothing to worry about. After all, as Beech points out of his own field in another context, “there is no labour market for the visual arts” (178): “no artist applies for the job of being an artist, no artist is employed in such a job by a firm, and… artists are not paid wages (178). Commodities as such pre-exist capitalism: in fact, they are one of its preconditions. So if we are not worried about the specifically capitalist subsumption of labor into a self-revolutionizing valorization process, what do we worry about about when we worry about commodification?
There is, however, a labor market in the visual arts, a fact that does not so much disprove Beech’s point as reconfigure it. The Bureau of Labor Statistics produces an “Occupational Outlook Handbook” that predicts trends in the U.S. labor market. “Arts and Design Occupations” are predicted to increase “from about 773,100 jobs in 2014 to about 789,700 jobs in 2024.”3 (To get a sense of scale, compare about 261,900 graphic designers in 2014 with 913,500 home health aides). “Projected growth will be due to increased demand for animation and visual effects in video games, movies, television, and on smartphones. As companies continue to increase their digital presence, more art and design workers will be needed to help create visually appealing and effective layouts of websites and other media platforms.” A character animator for a video game company performs directly productive labor, and her job is subject to deskilling, automation, and all the rest. For that matter, so does our singer. The production process for the music commodity—a CD or a download—has followed and continues to follow the familiar trajectory of saved labor through increased organic composition of capital. A staggering amount of musical knowledge has been incorporated into machines, and distribution—on Marx’s account the last stage of production rather than the first stage of circulation—proceeds now with a fraction of the labor input it did even a decade ago. That our singer’s job is still recognizable—and the advent of autotune is only an easily audible reminder that even this is far from straightforwardly true—is no more important to the status of the commodity that emerges from the production process as a properly capitalist commodity than is the fact that a machinist’s job is still recognizable. These changes in the production process leave their marks, often very deep ones, on the product of musical labor. However, as we shall see shortly, none of this—thankfully, as discussions of productive and unproductive labor get tedious in a hurry—is immediately relevant to the issue at hand.
Now, obviously, this isn’t what Beech is talking about at all. Video games and pop songs are the culture industry, not art. (But are we willing to say, a priori, that no pop commodity can be a work of art?) But then Beech does not quite mean that artistic labor cannot be really subsumed under capital; it is rather that the kind of artistic labor that produces something we think of as obviously and unproblematically art (as we cannot quite think of the pop song) is not really subsumed under capital. Adorno’s concern in the culture industry argument was not that ambitious oil painting (or things like it) would become commodified, but rather that ambitious oil painting and things like it would cease to exist, crowded out by things like video games and pop songs. The scenario is not unimaginable: a perfectly functioning culture market, without countervailing institutions and run perhaps on Peacock’s voucher system, would tend toward it.
It turns out that Beech shares Adorno’s concern. As we have already seen, “the agenda of the market” (123) concerns Beech throughout, and it reaches a kind of crescendo at the end of the book: “the left have been ill-prepared to defend art against market forces, incapable of distinguishing between those artists who produce commodities for the market, and those who do not” (356). One of his most important arguments, one I will not have space to engage in full here, is for government subsidy as “the only force strong enough to curb the power of the markets” (368). Beech’s instincts here (as himself a practicing artist) work somewhat against the grain of his official analysis. Indeed, by the final chapter the question of artistic labor has virtually disappeared, and when the book arrives at its climax—a ringing peroration on a “utopia for art”—the market and its antagonism to aesthetic value have emerged as Beech’s primary concern: “Our utopia for art must be based on discourse as a non-market mechanism for attributing value to art and this must be democratised not merely by extending existing competences but by subverting the expert with philistine knowledge. The market cannot bring this about” (370). Except for the philistine thing, which strikes me as a little undefined, I wholeheartedly agree with this. For Beech, the problem is not the real subsumption of artistic labor, because genuinely artistic labor cannot be really subsumed – not empirically, but by definition. The problem is rather markets, which threaten to supplant aesthetic judgment with market judgment, a usurpation that would have the effect of “artists who produce commodities for the market” crowding out “those who do not.”
The labor standpoint, which Beech is not alone in exploring in this context, had a certain hard-nosed appeal, but it’s not the mediation we’re looking for. Astoundingly, Beech never asks the obvious question: what does it matter if the work of art is a commodity? A pair of shoes being a capitalist commodity—or a pre-capitalist, “simple” commodity, or a non-commodity—has, unless we are talking about Heidegger’s pair of peasant shoes, no bearing at all on its being as a pair of shoes. The same goes for hammers, road salt, wallpaper. But it matters to Beech (he has written nearly 400 pages on the topic) whether works of art are commodities like any other. For Marxists at least, the problem with the shoes (and with the hammer, the salt, the wallpaper) has nothing to do with questions about its status as a pair of shoes and everything to do with what goes on in the labor process, “the hidden zone of production, on whose threshold it is posted: “No admittance except on business.”4 (K 189 / C 279-80). While there is no lack of exploitation in the culture industry, such exploitation concerns us in precisely the same way it does in any other industry. What is at issue is why the commodity-being of the work of art matters to its status as a work of art, while the commodity-being of a hammer does not matter to its being as a hammer.
In order to account for his concern with the market, Beech invents the concept (but it does not quite yet amount to a concept) of “commodification without commodification”: something like the reality of the appearance of the commodification question, which, as Beech himself remarks, has a “material basis” (123) in the logic of the market as the universal metabolic process in a developed capitalist society. The ideology of consumer sovereignty (or, if you like, “affect,” “punktum,” “the emancipation of the spectator,” “relational aesthetics,” or even, in most but not all of its acceptations, “political art”) proclaims, in its various vocabularies, that the customer is king. If the customer is king, the artwork bears no normative force: rather than challenging forth judgments, it merely elicits preferences. From this standpoint the market is prior to labor: only if market preferences triumphed once and for all over aesthetic judgments would the real subsumption of artistic labor (that is: the real death of art) be in view. Instead of starting with labor, we must start with the market.
Markets preexist capitalism, as does the commodity—indeed Marx’s word is not a specialized one at all, just Ware, goods produced for exchange—so the specificity of a Marxist critique of the art-commodity might seem to pose a problem. But really things aren’t so serious. The tendential universality of the market as the instrument of social judgment is both an ideologeme (Becker, but also Adam Smith) and a real process (actually existing voucher schemes, but also the attack on labor unions). As we all know, the logic of the commodity, that bourgeois obsession of “Western Marxism” and symptom of its historical defeat (but aren’t we all defeated now, at least for the present?), is laid out in Part One of Capital I. In the second chapter of that Part, the chapter on exchange, Marx lays out the logic of the market: his own version of “consumer sovereignty,” which I have explicated as thoroughly as I am able elsewhere.5 We are all familiar with those passages of the Grundrisse and The Communist Manifesto that describe the necessary expansion, both intensive and extensive, of the market, but let us take a moment to remind ourselves:
Every limit appears as a barrier to be overcome: first, to subjugate every aspect of production itself to exchange….Trade appears here no longer as a function between independent productions for the exchange of their excess, but as an essentially all-encompassing precondition and aspect of production itself.6
It is the tendential universality of the market as the sole organ of social metabolism that represents the originality of the capitalist market; the structure of the market described in Chapter 2 of Volume I applies otherwise to capitalist and pre-capitalist markets alike. The main feature of the exchange of commodities, as I have tried to show elsewhere, is to subtract normativity from the product of labor: this feature distinguishes the commodity in pre-capitalist and capitalist exchange alike. This is the point of Marx’s detour into the phenomenology of the market (since “commodities cannot go to market and exchange themselves… we must look behind them, to their owners [K99 / C 178]), but neoclassicism’s “consumer sovereignty” agrees here with Marx: in commodity production, consumer preference is prior to the intention of the producer, which is entirely subordinated to the goal [Zweck] of exchange. The buyer expresses a preference—different buyers express different preferences, with the same commodity or with different commodities—but does not need to supply a reason.
The subtraction of normativity (the a priori disqualification of Beech’s “judgments of value in art”) is what we worry about when we worry about the “commodification” of art. Since meanings are normative (you can misunderstand a meaning, but then you have misunderstood it), the commodity, produced for exchange, can have no meaning. It can only elicit (or fail to elicit) a preference: consumer sovereignty. Most of us, most of the time, are rightly worried about the labor process: speed-up, automation, and the rest. But for the work of art, the threat of its “real subsumption under capital” is posed via the mediation of the market: commodification means subsumption under the market; it means the erosion of the normative force of the artwork.
In the fragment from which we have mainly been reading, Marx writes:
The more production becomes the production of commodities, the more each person has to become a dealer in commodities and wants to make money, be it from a product or a service… and this money-making appears as the purpose [Zweck] of every kind of activity. (R 125 / C 1041)
Here, in other words, is the conceptual basis for Beech’s “commodification without commodification.” If we remember that the Kantian formula for aesthetic judgment is “Zweckmäßigkeit ohne Zweck,” purposiveness without purpose, we begin to see why aesthetic judgment is incompatible with the market, why the market is a threat for the work of art, why commodification is a problem. Aesthetic judgments in Kant are made without reference to external uses, either idiopathic ones (preferences, market-like judgments) or teleological ones (ends, state-like judgments). In an aesthetic judgment we find something “beautiful”—a term of art in Kant, the coordinates of which are not established with reference to ugliness or difficulty but in opposition to idiopathic and conceptual judgments, along one axis, and to the sublime, on the other—but we are indifferent to its existence. The work of art is, in its being as an artwork, exempted from use value, which is the only way it can be exempted from the economic. In its being as a use value, it for that reason also bears an exchange value—and in a society whose metabolism is the market, exchange value is logically prior as Zweck or purpose. For hammers this is not a problem—Estwing’s purpose (making money) is accomplished by fulfilling mine (having a good hammer); the problems arise out of sight of the market, in the production process. But for the work of art, this is a problem, since the logic of the market is consumer sovereignty. Beech sees this clearly: “One thing we can say about all judgments of value in art is that they are necessarily non-economic” (363). It’s not—on Beech’s submerged account—that art is uncommodified because artistic labor resists subsumption under capital; it is rather that artistic labor is unsubsumed because aesthetic judgment presupposes something in the artwork that is extra-economic. Beech’s understanding of aesthetic judgment, whether he acknowledges it or not, stands in a line that runs from Kant through Schiller through Marx (for whom artistic composition stood in for disalienated labor)—through Adorno and Lukács, who come in for some rough treatment in this book. Adorno understands that in a society like ours nothing is a priori exempt from the logic of the commodity—artworks have cunning, but no resistance—and so the potential commodity-being of the artwork must be confronted rather than denied: a thought Beech might tarry with for a while. But Lukács in particular is Beech’s ally. The work of art in Lukács is not the expression of reified society, as Beech implies without quite saying, but its other.7
The “real subsumption of the work of art under capital” is an ideologeme: if the work of art were really so subsumed, it would cease to be a work of art, and would be no more worth talking about, and no more worth talking about differently, than any other commodity.8 The incoherence of postmodern ideology was to insist explicitly on the commodification of the work of art while insisting implicitly that it was still worth talking about as a work of art. (There were coherent versions as well, but they precisely didn’t talk about the work of art as a work of art but rather as a private good or flattened “culture,” which is indeed ordinary even if artworks are rare). But it can’t function as an ideology without being well-grounded in appearances. Artworks are not private; by their very nature, they have to circulate: in the case of the visual arts, to be “made available to others through exhibition, reproduction, documentation, and other forms of display” (355). Visual art is fortunate to have modes of circulation that have some independence from the market. Other arts–television, if it can support art at all; non-erudite music—are not so lucky. What we need is not “a detailed and accurate economic analysis of art” (256) but rather a study of the medium-specificity of the relationships of the various arts to the market, and of how works in the various arts manage to assert their workness against a market that, by its nature and quite aside from anyone’s intention, insists that they are just commodities.
No less a figure than Jeff Wall has endorsed Beech’s project, and one can see why: when Julian Stallabrass, for example, dismisses Wall’s work as “spectacularly commodified,” the word has lost all meaning: all that remains is a leftish-peevish tonal marker.9 Stallabrass accuses Wall of nursing the ambition of being hung in museums and galleries, and of helping to produce an account of his own work that would legitimate its hanging in museums and galleries. It’s hard to construe this as a scandal. One can produce an entirely cynical, vulgar-Bourdieusian account of Wall’s success (or anyone else’s) in the restricted field of museums, galleries, art journals, and art history departments. But the process this describes is the precise opposite of commodification. If a work of art is displayable, it has display value, a use value, and in a society like ours it therefore has an exchange value and is a commodity—a residually “pre-capitalist” commodity if you like in the sense that it need not feed a process of capital accumulation, but fully a commodity in that circulating as art presupposes the possibility of circulating on a market. But a restricted field is not only not a market, it is structurally and by design the precise opposite of the market; in a society saturated by the ideology and the reality of the market, restricted fields are rare non-state spaces that are not structured like a market. (Of course these spaces are not pure, but they are spaces where market logic is understood to be a problem rather than the norm). One seeks admission to the restricted field, and contributes to it by participating in it, precisely in order to be free from consumer sovereignty, from the aggregrate judgment of the anonymous market. In a restricted field, judgments matter, preferences don’t—which is why Stallabrass’s critique takes the form of an essay rather than that of simply preferring to look at Sekula. (And it is why, as Beech plausibly insists, parameters for market prices are established by critics who, in their capacity as critics, are not market actors at all). Of course, as with any field, there are constraints and barriers to entry, which Wall (or anyone else) must negotiate: only certain kinds of work hang in a museum, just as only certain kinds of work run in NLR. But nobody said entry into the restricted field got you freedom: heteronomy to the restricted field is, in a society like ours, the price that has to be paid for a specific autonomy: a provisional, field-dependent autonomy from the logic of a commodity form that is also, as a displayable thing, the artwork’s material support.
Perhaps the thesis of Stallabrass’s argument is distracting us from his real problem with Wall, which is that his pictures are legibly commodified through and through: the problem is not that they aim at the museum, but that they don’t belong there. Among Stallabrass’s associative remarks about Wall and advertising, one seems like it might bear some critical content. Of Wall’s digital manipulation, Stallabrass writes: “Contingency is not entirely abolished but intention saturates every point of the image, just as it does in the photography of advertising, commerce and the public-relations industries.” This is a bizarre understanding of the concept “intention.” In an advertisement, the only intention that matters is to sell a product. All manner of decisions can and do saturate an advertising image, but these are subordinate to the purpose (Zweck) of selling the product. In a successful work of art, all kinds of decisions are subordinate to a larger intention as well; but that intention is analytically identical with the meaning (Zweckmäßigkeit) of the work, so it makes sense to speak of the work as a whole as saturated with intention. As we saw, art-commodities may well bear the marks of industrial processes. A work of art may, on the other hand, choose to exhibit them, which is a different matter altogether. We can tell the difference between bearing marks and exhibiting marks because works of art tell us how to tell the difference, each time. That is what it means to be a work of art as opposed to some other kind of thing: a work is a thing that calls for close reading, a self-legislating artifact.
Perhaps, then, the intention itself is the problem: perhaps Wall’s pictures are too conformist or comforting and therefore not intentions at all but a kind of pandering: they’re not meanings, but selling points—consumer sovereignty after all. And indeed, Stallabrass finds Wall’s treatment of class too elegiac, too passive, too comfortingly pessimistic: photography as a “monument to the defeated working class.” It seems to me that this is reading between the photographs rather than reading the photographs. “Morning Cleaning” or “A View from an Apartment” would seem to me rather to stage something like a class antagonism that subtends the apparent peace of daily life. One of Wall’s consistent techniques is to juxtapose two uncommunicating and yet related worlds in a single picture: the port of Vancouver—metonymic site both of global trade and of class struggle—and the modest bourgeois apartment that overlooks it; or the Barcelona Pavilion as a site of work on one hand, and as an international design-tourism destination on the other.
The force of these juxtapositions is that they are not presented as allegorical: they are rather presented as just there. A rift yawns and is captured by the camera; passersby carry on with their business. The work of the photographic index, no matter how saturated with intention the image is, is to present meanings like these as if they were not meanings at all. In Martinus Rørbye’s “View from the Artist’s Window” (1825), the receding lines of the open casement lead the eye to a Danish warship, palpably connecting the interior world of the artist’s room to the world of maritime power and trade.10 In Rørbye’s painting, the objects in the foreground—empty sketchbook, plants in various stages of development, a caged bird—comprise an allegory: they do not appear as objects that are just there, but as objects that were placed there to tell a story. If we imagine Wall’s “A View from an Apartment” as a painting, the television in the foreground would function in the same way as Rørbye’s plants.11 Not only is it an imported consumer good—unquestionably a commodity like any other!—that has passed through this harbor or one like it; not only is it a third reflective glass surface and a third, and equally ignored, window; but the light from the harbor and the image of the container cranes is reflected in its surface. The reflected light from the cranes enters from the port (from the back of the picture), crosses the room between the two figures (intersecting but not entering their sightlines) and bounces off the screen out of the picture plane toward the viewer. The painted television would, like the plants in Rørbye’s window, telegraph its intendedness, insisting on being read allegorically: the worlds of production and consumption are hermetically sealed off from one another, but they nonetheless form one totality. This is a lesson one may well find congenial, but in a painting it would pose a political problem (what authority can this lesson have?) and an aesthetic problem (what relation can the immediately allegorical elements have to the form of a whole that does not mediate them?). In the photograph, however, this same meaning is presented as immanent to the just-thereness of the television and the just-thereness of the apartment—not a matter of intention at all—and this presentational immanence is essential to the plausibility of the picture. It is only after considerable time with the picture that we realize that the viewer is placed in the one spot in the room that would capture the image of the harbor in the television screen: in effect, the rhetoric of the photograph insists that the reflection in the television determines the form of the picture as a whole.12
Stallabrass’s smoking gun is Wall’s 2004 revision of his 1988 “Eviction Struggle,” retitled “An Eviction.” “Most significantly” writes Stallabrass,
in line with the change of title, Wall removes two figures who do not merely glance at the scene but watch steadily from a distance, and who may be read as officials or landlords overseeing the eviction. So we move from a piece that was a long landscape view of class conflict, to one that may more easily be read as a meditation on human imperfection, in which power relations are toned down and “struggle” is lost.
One might better understand Wall’s revision in the light of “Morning Cleaning” and “A View from an Apartment.” “Eviction Struggle” was an allegory. It dramatically staged class conflict; but the very staginess of the allegory was a problem, which derived from the fact that the image was wildly implausible in a way that ruined the picture and its politics at the same time. An eviction is a moment of class violence: but it doesn’t look like class violence, it just looks like the law. (Bank officials or landlords petition judges for eviction orders, but they don’t drive across town to watch them being executed). So by staging class struggle rather than producing the plausible fiction of having captured it, the 1988 picture loses the force of the index and turns the picture into a message, which one is free to like or dislike, agree with or not, but which does not carry the force of the actual. The 2004 version doesn’t look like a message; the stagedness of the eviction tableau is contained by its plausibility: we know that things like this happen; in the past decade, we have probably seen them happen. But now the ones who “watch steadily from a distance” are not bankers or owners, but the picture’s viewers: us. So the class antagonism in the picture has not ceased to exist, but it is no longer a personal antagonism between figures in a picture, which we were free to deplore without discomfort, but rather an antagonism between figures in the picture and forces that can’t be in the picture, because they are structural, and in which we are also implicated. Class antagonism has, in effect, been rotated ninety degrees: it now subtends a relationship that appears peaceful, namely that between the evicted and the viewers in the gallery.
Plausibility—a crucial moment of aesthetic judgment since Aristotle, and one that in photography is bound up with the rhetoric of the indexical trace—carries a certain kind of normative force: not the kind that laws have or the kind that mathematical proofs have, but the kind that artworks have. The problem with messages is that they carry no force; you either agree with them or you don’t. Stallabrass is free to prefer the message of “Eviction Struggle” to the one he (in my view mistakenly) finds in “An Eviction.” But preferences are market judgments, not scholarly or aesthetic ones. If Stallabrass is more interested in better messages than in better pictures, then he wants his art not less commodified, but more.