Interview: Ben Davis on Marxism, Criticism, and Contemporary Art

William Powhida, "Relational Wall," 2009. (Detail).
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Ben Davis is among the most keenly-read young critics working in the field today. His analyses of the contemporary artworld – both its machinations and aesthetics – read like so many clarion calls for criticism’s return to sense-making, stock-taking, and long reflection. His writing across various platforms (Artnet, The Brooklyn Rail, The Village Voice) maintains a consistency of tone that doesn’t sacrifice idealism for evaluation. In his clear-eyed appraisals of complex subjects – like how class gets articulated in contemporary art, the renewed relevance of Marxist theory, and the contradictions inherent to our troubled feminism – Davis issues a confidence that reads like inquiry. Following the release of his first book, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, and the significant responses it‘s provoked (his admirers span a surprising spectrum of “cultural workers,” from Peter Schjeldahl to Adrian Grenier), MOMUS  editor Sky Goodden caught up with Davis to query subjects like criticism, class, and writing through the doubt.

Can you make clear for those who haven’t read the book: how are you positioning artists as middle-class?

That term can be confusing, and as I’ve lectured and toured with the book, I’m careful to specify what I mean by it. I think we talk about class in a confused way, and don’t have a great vocabulary to describe how we (by which I mean everyone) function in the economy. We tend to think of class only in terms of rich and poor, but it also has to do with how much agency you have in your job, and how you relate to the whole system.

Contemporary artists today are still a really good example of what people thought of as the “middle class,” when the idea of “class” first became the subject of theoretical inquiry: in a sense of the class that comes between the laborers who work for someone else, and the boss who employs other people. This puts artists in an interesting layer of people, people who have some meaningful control over the content of their own production. It’s a minority position, and that fact explains some of the quirkier things about artistic labor, and some of the quirky things it symbolizes within the economy.

What I think is interesting about this way of approaching the question is that there is a tradition of thinking about class in that way that you can draw on. So that some of the enduring problems that people have in categorizing art in relation to other kinds of work, and talking about what it means to be an artist, become much clearer, much easier to talk about once you have a vocabulary to describe what is eccentric about artists’ labor in a way that is not magical – and I think the classic Marxist language of class helps do this.

In your book you state, “Art’s self-satisfied pluralism is also a guarantee of the inequality surrounding art.” Can you parse this?

That’s in the chapter “The Agony of the Interloper,” where I talk about figures who fall outside the established domain of what we count as contemporary art – the exceptions, because the exceptions always help you see the rule. A lot of conversations about contemporary art start from this boilerplate line of thinking that says the most basic and fundamental thing about contemporary art is its pluralism; that is, that what’s most characteristic of contemporary art is that anything can be art. And I really think that that’s a total illusion.

Everything can be art only within a very particular, circumscribed place that we call the “artworld.” For a class I’m teaching I went back and read this essay that gets credit for defining and introducing the concept: Arthur Danto’s essay from 1964 called “The Artworld.” And it’s a really interesting read because Danto is most famous for his idea of the “end of art,” where he looks at Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes and uses them to make the argument we live in a world, now, where anything is art if you say it’s art.

What I think is so interesting about going back to that original essay is that Danto is most famous for “The End of Art,” but the same ideas are first formulated in “The Artworld” (including the Brillo Box example). So, when you look at it historically, the idea of total artistic pluralism – the “end of art” idea, that “anything” can be art – becomes intellectually possible in the 1960s at exactly the same time that the “artworld” becomes a thing that’s self-consciously defined. Art profiles itself as a sphere set apart, with its own language and own solidified institutions to relate to. And you can do whatever you want – but only within that sphere, which requires education, and connections, and a relationship to certain institutions to attain.

You’re the critic-in-residence at Montclair State University, teaching a course to artists based on this book. Has teaching affected the way you think about the critics’s relation to the artist or the reader?

A little bit. I haven’t been teaching that long, but it’s definitely a different kind of experience than being an art critic. The implications of this book’s ideas become very immediate when you’re talking to aspiring artists about them. As a critic, I think you should start out from a place critical of the institutions of the artworld – I’m even critical of the term “artworld.” And I really do believe that this perspective is useful for artists: most of the meaningful art is going to be produced in either liminal spaces or in debate with institutions that license artists, because new ideas spring up by questioning old ones. Really understanding how the sausage gets made is going to keep you from getting ground up yourself, that’s sure.

But as a teacher you realize how easy it is to throw the baby out with the bath water, to have a critique of the “artworld” come off as a critique of making “art” itself – which is a problem that is baked in, because these institutions totally dominate what people think it means to be an artist. The experience of teaching challenges me to articulate a little better ‘why’ being engaged with the professional contemporary art world is interesting, despite it all.

Is a resistance to the terms and ideas connected to communism or Marxism exacerbated in any unique way in the artworld, or do you see its bad associations level across the board?

I think the artworld is actually pretty open to Marxist thought, for very historical reasons. Marxism has a bad name because people have done some very bad things in the name of Marxism, but at the same time, there’s a really robust tradition of critical engagement with these ideas that can’t be reduced to its Cold War caricature. And a lot of this happened specifically in cultural theory. An entire tradition – what sometimes gets called the “Western Marxist” tradition – looked to art and culture as an important space of critical engagement within capitalist society. Walter Benjamin, Theodore Adorno, Louis Althusser, all the way up to Frederic Jameson. All those figures are really engaged with cultural ideas, and their thoughts have become a robust part of the tradition of critical thought about art, and are actually pretty mainstream within art criticism. This tradition has its limits – I’m critical of some of these figures in my book – but it’s something to point to.

And that’s not just true of art, either. We forget, or just don’t get taught, that really fundamental ideas we use to describe contemporary life came out of a dialogue with Marxism. In some ways, without this body of ideas, you don’t have anything recognizably like a progressive vocabulary to deal with the world, to understand the present: “gentrification” was a term coined by a Marxist sociologist, Ruth Glass; think of how key that is to understanding what’s happening in cities. Even the idea of “mitigating evidence” in court comes from Clarence Darrow, a radical lawyer who represented Eugene Debs, maybe the most famous socialist politician in the United States in the first part of the twentieth century. It’s a very basic application of the materialist understanding of society: crime doesn’t just come from bad ideas people have, it comes from the material circumstances that form them. I think we should be open and proud and reclaim this radical tradition’s importance.

You write, “If you are going to have any way to interact with contemporary art positively, you need some theory that is more nuanced than that on offer.” What would this nuance look like; what’s missing? And who are some writers who we might be looking to, in the current moment, for more nuanced theoretical reading?

Most of the theory that circulates around art I’d describe as trading in pseudo-complexity. The actual thoughts are very simple, disguised in complex language. There’s an intellectual short-circuit where people talk about how art as if what’s important about it is how it relates to a really abstract concept like “the gaze,” or “difference,” or “the readymade,” or “modernity.” These are all interesting themes that emerge from interesting histories, but the concepts are used in stock ways – they become idealist tropes, by which I mean, critics seem to start with the idea and work from it down to the object.

So I’d say, in general, it’s the actual history that gets left out. The mode I prefer is to dig into the historical forces that shape and shake-up what art is, including the ideas that circulate around it. I think that’s where the interesting debates and complexity and nuance appear. That’s where I put my faith.

Regarding criticism, you write that there’s been an “an erosion, an incremental but relentless shifting of the balance of forces, which is why the ‘crisis of criticism’ manifests itself as a nagging, recurring, but ever-more-insistent theme rather than a sudden revelation.” You go further to say “’criticism’s goal should be to oxidize the atmosphere in which artists breathe and create’ (Trotsky), to open the circuits between politics and art and let them share their passions. Politically engaged but defiantly in love with art for what it is – that is what criticism has to be if its own nagging ‘crisis is not to turn into a crash.”

You comment earlier in the book on the history of politics and activism in contemporary art, and despite notable recent examples of uprisings in Egypt, Syria, and New York, you summate that a) activism as we once knew it is no longer the same animal; b) art rarely has a patch on these bigger issues and achievements; and c) even if it did, it’s rarely good art.

So where does criticism fit into the political equation? When you write that criticism should open the circuits between politics and art, to what extent can it be effective, and to what extent can it be convincing, when critical art writing is already fighting for its platform?

Well, there is a lot of political art writing. As a matter of fact, when I tour the book the thing people want to talk about most is political art, how to be political as artists. And I think that’s because one of the things you get out of being an artist is the ability to speak your mind, and use your work as a platform. One of the consequences of that, though, is that people end up essentially looking for a political signature that’s also an artistic signature and also a professional signature. And those three things overlapping create a distortion where people are arguing about politics but they’re also arguing about aesthetics and arguing about their career.

These are different things. Everyone is looking for a model of engaged art. And so the discourse becomes very self-righteous in an abstract way, and politically counter-productive. Generally a social movement that is robust is going to be diverse, and include people of all different tastes: some are going to be “social practice” artists whose art essentially is a form of activism, and some are going to be artists who have much, much more traditional aesthetic tastes, and that’s OK. Your art doesn’t have to be your only engagement in politics; maybe someone who makes art that’s not outwardly political is actually a better activist. I quote Victor Burgin in the book, who says he’d rather work with someone who does watercolors of sunsets than someone who makes “political art” but helps the boss ram through a terrible policy.

A role of art criticism is to put the pleasures of art and the excitement of art into some sort of relationship with politics and activism – because protest needs creativity and creative people can be very inspired and invigorated by protest – without squashing them together. Because, after all, something can be politically good but artistically not that interesting, and vice versa. Criticism can serve a role in untangling the things that collapse into one another in a way that’s counter-productive. And if you can have them moving along parallel to each other without crashing into one another, then you have something really powerful.

Peter Schjeldahl writes in his “Of Ourselves and Our Origins”: “Critics now are good at answers. We’re short of good questions.” This hasn’t been my experience, actually. But what do you think? And what would your chief questions be?

When I look at other critics, I usually think I can find in their writing one kind of structure that it all comes down to, one ‘problem’ that they’re trying to answer with their writing. In Peter Schjeldahl’s case, I think he approaches things from the point of view of trying to create a space to think about art independently of ethics or morals, he tells the story of art form that perspective. So he’s similar to me, in terms of what I was just saying, though I think we have a different ultimate approach.

And what I think he’s saying in that quote is essentially a variation on that theme. Critics are really good at saying “this is what art should be” and coming up with a theory, so that a lot of art theory boils down to disguised ethics that art should operate in a certain kind of way in order to be critical or engaged with the ideas that matter. I’d have to reread the essay, but I think what he’s saying is the energies of art can’t be boiled down to a should, to a right or wrong answer. And I agree with that in a lot of ways.

But I think it’s confusing. In my book’s chapter called “Crisis and Criticism,” I point out that everyone seems to think that there’s a problem with contemporary criticism but no one can agree on what that problem is. For some people criticism is too theoretical, for some people it’s not theoretical enough. For some there are too many answers; for others, there aren’t enough.

I actually don’t think there is a crisis in criticism. I think there’s a lot of really interesting writing and developments in writing going on right now. I think what maybe people have is a lack of a sense of shared ideas that are being debated. Personally, I try to approach each piece of writing as introducing an idea or trying to add an idea to the conversation.

But, then again, I guess those ideas all do relate back to a question for me: “What does it mean to be making art – in the present, and how is it different from the past?” And I feel like anything you write about art is in some way about asking that question.

I was recently on a panel where a leading art critic and editor, Richard Rhodes [editor of Canadian Art], basically said it’s not possible to make sweeping statements about the nature of contemporary art, anymore, given its plurality and dispersion. I’ve found you to be an example of the exception, calling out the themes, tropes, and issues most relevant to an artworld that is, however fractured, is still capable of coherence. How do you do this? And do you consider yourself to be an exception? Finally, how do you navigate confidence and doubt when it comes to making claims?

I don’t know the character of that [panel] conversation but I think that observation can be true or false, depending on what you mean by “contemporary art.” A lot of our confusion comes in because this is a confusing term: are you talking about “contemporary art” as in museum and gallery culture, or “contemporary visual culture” as such?

If it’s the former, then I tend to think that contemporary art is a lot less pluralized than it seems. Or at least its pluralism is of a very regulated kind. It all does come down to people who have this very specific, quirky way of relating to their creative labor, who produce signature objects or branded experiences, and more or less claim control over the meaning of what they do. It really is unique and specific, how contemporary art operates.

I’d add that I like Lawrence Alloway’s theory that an “artworld” isn’t defined by art production but by art distribution. You can have artists without an artworld. But you can only have an “artworld” when you have distribution of discourse around art. So in a way, gallerists and critics and museum folk make an artworld, and their structures and institutions are far more homogenous, it seems to me, than the art itself. I think the discourse around art is much more homogenized than it claims to be. There’s certainly a lot of diversity, but, I mean, art fairs look the same everywhere.

Did your writing style and mode of ‘address’ come naturally to you, or is it one that results more from choice-making?

I’m really flattered people consider what I do to be so unique. There are so many writers that I think are great. But I have a conscious thing I think I do, yes.

There’s a frozen debate that I try to get at in the book, between two major schools of thought – those who think in terms of theory, who think that what’s valuable for them is trying to explore bodies of academic ideas. And then there are those who are more lyrically minded, and are more interested in the popular audience, and often think of themselves as debunking and being more genuine than their counterparts who disseminate academic writing.

I think that maybe what’s semi-distinctive about my approach is that I consider myself a debunker, and have always sort of held a bit of disdain – I think in the book, maybe a little too much disdain – for academic capture of criticism. But instead of doing it from the point of view of, “you guys have no business talking about art because art is about feelings,” I think of myself as criticizing these ideas from the point of view, not that theory is bad for art, but that most of art theory just isn’t good theory: it leaves out what a good theory should account for, which is actual history and the material specificity of a process. Any theory of art has to be about how it is both an intellectual and a sensuous experience. You maybe could say that as opposed to these two positions where you’re either an ‘ideas person’ or a ‘feelings person’, I’m trying to make room for a center person who’s saying, “I believe in ideas that feel good.”

What do online platforms afford us for the revival – or at least re-positioning – of art criticism?

The internet provides us with a very good platform to think about and engage with a very important thing that’s changing art, which is the internet. That’s a circular answer, but it is a little ridiculous to see people who hold themselves outside of the online conversation. And I’m not “all in” with the internet. I think that it has strengths and weaknesses, including the kinds of conversations it encourages. But I think there’s no doubt that it lowered the barriers to entry, and formed a whole new ecology of art writing that’s lively and engaged and that has lots to recommend it.

Criticism as a writing genre requires you to leave your desk and go do something and spend some time looking at it, then reflect on it, and write something about it. And my experience as an art critic is that the way the internet works, which is all now-oriented, that time often vanishes. It’s always easier for your boss to have you write another thing that responds to conversations taking place online than to leave your desk and go look at something. The internet never stops producing conversation, and the internet’s favorite topic is the internet. [Laughs]

So there’s a pressure to write about memes and other discourse that’s going on online. Which has its merits, but in terms of writing about what’s going on in a non-virtual space, there are actually some challenges that are worth working through. I think the way people do reviews has to be re-thought to work online; we’re still using very traditional formats, for the most part. That’s part of what I think is exciting about MOMUS, that it’s engaged with that conversation and that process of rethinking how considered art writing works online.

The contemporary moment, both in the artworld and the political realm, is in active flux. I wonder, now that your book has been out a year: what arguments would you change, what perspectives would you have softened or made harder in their focus, if you could now edit the text?

It’s a weird book, you know? I keep thinking about that, and rehearsing what I would say if I were reviewing my own book. I might go after it. I think about that and then think about how I would defend myself from myself. And what I’d want people to say, or at least recognize is, “It’s just such a weird book.” Maybe I didn’t even think about this when I was writing it, but the way it plays with academic ideas but isn’t really targeted at an academic audience, it’s rather targeted at a different audience, one that maybe doesn’t quite exist yet. It explores a space that I don’t know how to describe.

Doesn’t that make it a leader?

I hope so, yeah. I hope so.

1 Comment

  • Earl Miller says:

    Excellent interview. He raises several issues that I have thought about and concur with – e.g., too much art criticism is based on pre-accepted theoretical tropes, art writing needs to adjust to the online world.

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