Back in 2009, the New Museum organized a show of the private collection of Greek billionaire Dakis Joannou, curated not by the museum’s staff but by Jeff Koons—the superstar artist who, as it so happens, features prominently in the tycoon’s holdings. The conflict of interest didn’t end there: Koons had designed Joannou’s thirty-five-meter yacht and was even the best man at Joannou’s wedding. Among those upset by this somewhat unusual—but also somehow emblematic—arrangement was William Powhida. Then a lesser-known artist, Powhida detailed the whole back-scratchy affair in a drawing called How the New Museum Committed Suicide with Banality, which memorably shamed all the interested parties when it appeared on the cover of the Brooklyn Rail. But of course, when the satirical image was sold as a limited-edition print, the punch line was that it, too, quickly entered the collection of Dakis Joannou.
Sensing a deeper problem, the art critic Ben Davis then suggested Powhida organize an expanded response to the situation, which led to an open-form show called “#class” at Ed Winkleman’s gallery in Chelsea. Anyone who wanted to discuss and depict “money’s impact on art” was invited to participate. But when Davis saw the proposed projects—including a game of Battleship pitting artists against art dealers and a plan to have the show’s visitors photographed like celebrities—he realized just how much people were struggling to address the issue in a substantive way. Even his own contribution, a compact and carefully organized pamphlet called “9.5 Theses on Art and Class,” resulted in a conversation that was still “strangely centerless, as if we were all searching for a common framework.” This book, which adds fifteen essays to the original suite of theses, is Davis’s further attempt to provide that framework.
The crux of Davis’s argument is grounded in the simple assertion that artists are middle-class. Regardless of income level, background, or self-perception, Davis categorizes artists this way because of the control they have over their own work. No matter how exploited they feel, artists who make a living selling their work can never qualify as working-class, because they are not selling their labor in the abstract. But they aren’t exactly capitalists either, because as individual “creative franchises” they are usually more interested in their own autonomy and reputation than they are in pure profit.
Though artists insist on being their own bosses, that doesn’t quite put them in charge. The wealthy still dominate both the art market and its not-for-profit institutions, so a stubborn conflict endures between their uses for art and how artists view their own work. (The working class, meanwhile, is basically left out.) In an age of mass culture, both artists and buyers want to preserve an ideal of individual creativity, but the underlying tension between vocation (expression) and profession (income) reflects a fundamental question: for whose benefit?
The current, often uneasy arrangement grants inflated symbolic power to artists, but also conceals how little material leverage artists actually possess. Since artists are sole proprietors, the only production they can shut down is their own. By reminding artists where they really stand, Davis hopes, in the end, to put them on firmer footing, both politically and creatively.
For Davis, class status clearly delimits the actual social power of contemporary artists. Unlike those working in industries such as film, music, design, and architecture, artists can’t connect and organize as culture workers. Nor can they hope to compete with the exponentially more popular realm of capitalist mass culture. So they have the tricky task of ingratiating themselves to the class of people who buy art while simultaneously maintaining their cachet as independent observers of the culture at large. No wonder they often attempt to justify their activity in what Davis aptly calls “tortuous” and “febrile” terms.
Staggered by “the degree to which critics take artistic posturing at face value,” Davis is no less dogged in excavating his own middle-class profession. Aiming to “put the history back in art history,” he takes up several big topics—the crisis of criticism, the state of postmodernism, the nature of pluralism in the art world—in ways that intend to correct what he sees as an “overvaluation of theory and discourse over context and political analysis.”
And Davis does endeavor to practice what he preaches. In order to account for what he sees as shifts at Artforum (from “a place where ideas truly made a difference” to something less politically engaged) and October (from usefully abstract to habitually so), for example, he outlines a tripartite history of how the market, the university, and the government have shaped art criticism. Similarly, when talking about his (intentionally awkward) notion of the “semi-post-postmodern condition,” Davis suggests revisiting Fredric Jameson’s famous formulation of “the cultural logic of late capitalism” and revising it to better reflect the more specific “ideology of neoliberalism.” Perhaps most ambitiously, Davis looks at the apparent heterogeneity of the art world and sees instead its many class-based exclusions—of content and values, audiences and participants—which, again, he wants to map, and eventually address, in real economic and educational terms.
In the end, the role Davis sees for himself—an activist as a citizen, and an eclectic, vigilant pragmatist as a critic—isn’t too different from what he would expect from serious artists. He hopes dedicated makers of art will connect organically with movements that might actually bring about large-scale social change. How that will happen is, of course, the big question, and one that Davis intentionally leaves open. Rather than push a particular set of political expectations on artists, he invites them to look carefully at their own class status; instead of emphasizing the art world’s influence, Davis repeatedly underlines how the art world is shaped by events outside of it. This combination of frank self-evaluation and contextualization might not be enough to fully clarify—or fundamentally transform—the complex relationship between art and class, but it does seem like a sensible way to start.
Dushko Petrovich is an artist and writer who lives in New Haven, Connecticut. He is coeditor of Paper Monument and teaches at the Yale University School of Art.