What do we need to know about “art” or “class struggle” before considering their relation to one another? Could you describe a specific work or text that might serve as an illustration of class struggle or as an exploration of the problem of representing it? Let us say that visual art, broadly speaking, does express the worldview of the dominant class. What kind of art then expresses the worldview of, say, hedge fund managers? Does the dialectic of the visible and invisible still hold for conceptual and post-conceptual art? What alternative critical apparatus would you propose, since neither Lenin nor John William Cooke seemed to care much for art. Why should we?
This roundtable considers the relationship between art and class struggle in theoretical, art historical, intellectual-historical, or poetic terms. It is evident that class struggle continues. However, looking back at the most notable works of social art history from the 1970s, it seems that the classes in question are different ones today, and that perhaps art no longer plays the same instrumental role in effecting the worldview of the ruling class that it once did.
In the 1970s, in an attempt to reformulate the mechanistic or deterministic views of an earlier generation, Marxist art historians assumed or invoked ideology as a way of squaring art with class struggle. Take, for example, Nicos Hadjinicolau's definition of visual ideology as “the way in which the formal and thematic elements of a picture are combined on each specific occasion [such that] this combination is a particular form of the overall ideology of a social class”1 or John Berger's assertion that “the art of any period tends to serve the ideological interests of the ruling class.”2 Visual art, in particular, seemed to hold a heuristic key capable of revealing and historicizing ideology.
Over the last forty years, Marxist and post-Marxist art historical approaches have alternately contemplated or acted out the tension between class struggle and the purportedly totalizing nature of capitalism. Consider, for example, the call for an aesthetics of cognitive mapping (Jameson); the propaedeutic role assigned to art in revealing the real abstraction of social relations and in questioning the valorization of immaterial labor under capitalism (Althusser and Sohn-Rethel); or the formulation of tactical responses to the omnipresence of surveillance technology that purports to leave nothing unseen (Hito Steyerl). While each of these approaches underscores the different “ways of seeing” specific to capitalism, one could argue that they do so at the cost of a potentially more polemical view of social relations or their bearing on sense or representation.
We asked participants to submit texts in response to one or more of the following questions, or to reformulate them as they saw fit: If you have addressed any of the questions described above in your work, how might you summarize your position now or at the time that you wrote your previous work? What do we need to know about “art” or “class struggle” before considering their relation to one another? Could you describe a specific work or text that might serve as an illustration of class struggle or as an exploration of the problem of representing it? Let us say that visual art, broadly speaking, does express the worldview of the dominant class. What kind of art then expresses the worldview of, say, hedge fund managers? Does the dialectic of the visible and invisible still hold for conceptual and post-conceptual art? What alternative critical apparatus would you propose, since neither Lenin nor John William Cooke seemed to care much for art. Why should we?
Nicos Hadjinicolau, Art History and Class Struggle, trans. Louise Asmal (London: Pluto Press, 1978), 95.
John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: Pluto Press, 1978), 95.
University of California, Riverside
I'm standing in front of Velázquez's Las hilanderas, o la fábula de Aracne, from roughly 1657, as I have so many times before. A motley assortment of interpretations is before me, too: iconographic, formal, historicist. I find war and classes: Arachne against Athena; humans and gods; Jupiter and Europa; the purchasing class and the weaving class, in the twinned spaces of the tapestry factory of Santa Isabel, in Madrid; the clash between the line drawn by the gazes that draw me in or draw me to the different spaces (the woman in the middle plane looking out; the bull's one eye, reaching out from the tapestry) and the spiral that winds from the uncarded wool hanging, massive, unformed, on the wall; through the whirl of the thread's production in the first plane; up the steps and into the matter of the tapestries that form the canvas's third plane, hung on the virtual plane, the canvas, that's both a fourth, receding plane and the material support for the whole fraught architecture. (Icons: the spinning wheel; the ladder; circle/line).
Today my eyes come back to the blank wheel in motion almost on the plane of the canvas.
Let's translate Marx's famous proposition that “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.” Our translations of this sentence from The German Ideology sound very much like restatements, and go like this: “The aesthetic of the ruling class is in every epoch the ruling aesthetic” and “The art most valued is in every epoch the art of the ruling class,” by which we mean “the art valued by the ruling class.”
Our translations run into four classes of problems.
1. Topological. To what extent and in what way is the aesthetic a subset of the class of ideas? Can we in fact substitute one in place of the other, and deposit thought about “art” or “the aesthetic” into the place occupied by “the idea”? Marx himself does not use the term idea, Idee, but Gedanke or Gedanken, “thought or thoughts.” A proper version would then be: “In every epoch, the dominant thoughts or ‘thinkings’ or thought products are the thought products of the dominant class.” The distinction is an important one. An idea is an object of thought; it is produced as such, with the name idea, by philosophers who borrow their dominance over other producers of thought from the qualities with which they endow the idea—a hieratic eminence, permanence, abstraction, capaciousness. The idea of the philosopher shines with light borrowed from the “idea” that the philosophers spin into the normal form of thought. Differently put: philosophers, famously charged with just interpreting the world, install a regime of ideas preponderant over thought. They create an ideal class of idea producers whose “ideas”—foremost the idea of class or a class—are simultaneously more capacious, more capable of describing the world, and accessible only through the sovereign disposition, in the domain of thinking, of that class of thoughts, and in the world of disciplinary and institutional relations, of the faculty of philosophers who produce and protect them.
Our first class of problems, then, flows from the unsettled status of terms and their relations: ideas, thoughts, class, art, and aesthetics. What relations these terms bear to one another, and what relationships of inclusion, extension, and order of generality might be implied when we make a statement concerning “the dominant aesthetic” or “the art of the dominant class”—these questions are, for the moment, left unaddressed.
2. Conceptual. What value do we assign the possessive—the figure of ownership, of private possession: “of the ruling class”? What does it mean for a class to possess ideas or an aesthetic? (If a class is defined by the ideas it “possesses,” can it be said to be distinct from those possessions?) Do we imagine possession on the model—according to the diagram—of what I myself can own, under specific circumstances, according to a socioeconomic frame that associates my possessing of this or that, say, with my individual standing? (Icon: McPherson.) The first recorded owner of Las hilanderas was Pedro de Arce.
3. Philological. Take the German for class, Klasse. What was it, what did it mean, and for whom, at the time when Marx was writing The German Ideology? Klasse covers the meanings of “group,” “race,” “type,” “a collection of similarly aged schoolchildren,” and in a naive sense, a “set.” It's to be distinguished from Stand, an “estate” or “order”; it's not a “caste.” To use Klasse for a group with similar economic interests, similarly emplaced in the circuit of extraction-production-distribution and consumption and aware of that emplacement, involves doing work with and on the term, as well as on terms contingent on it. What's the nature of that work? What do we say about the class of people or of institutions, or of people working in institutions, who perform this work?
4. Historical, historicist. How has the semantic drift of idea, possession, thought, aesthetic, class into today's settings informed the way I understand the work these words did then? (“Today's settings”—For whom? Where? Whose “day,” and what, after all, is a “day” for you and me, today? Icon: workday)
A diagrammatic imaginary shapes the field on which our four problems braid. When I say, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas,” or in my version, “The aesthetic of the ruling class is in every epoch the ruling aesthetic,” I make sharp enough distinctions between the regions of this diagrammatic space.
Think of the line that runs from Euler to Boole and Venn. A collection of elements forming a class, a set, is figured in the following way. (Icon: “elements”—the members of a class, proletariat, bourgeoisie; accountable, substantially self-identical, “possessing” shared definitive properties; distinct from nonmembers of the class or members of other classes who don't “possess” those properties, with whom they can enter into conflict).
The naïve diagrammatic imaginary of the line-set-field is the vernacular space in which classes take shape for us, stand before each other, cross or fail to meet, enter into struggle. Here is Venn's expanded table:
“Comparative Table of Logical Propositions,” illustrated in John Venn, Symbolic Logic (London: Macmillan, 1881), 30.
The most substantial transformation in the concept of class, and in the concept of concept, is a transformation of the diagram. It's due to Bourdieu and Wittgenstein, and follows Velázquez's counter-diagram. (Icon: Cantor vs. Boole; incompleteness; Wittgenstein, ostension and “blur” in Philosophical Investigations § 71: “The concept ‘game’ is a concept with blurred edges [mit verschwommenen Rändern]—'But is a blurred concept a concept at all?’—Is an indistinct [unscharfer] photograph a picture of a person at all? … Frege compares a concept to an area and says that an area with vague boundaries [unklar begrenzt] cannot be called an area at all … But is it senseless to say: ‘Stand roughly there’?”1 But also, from Wittgenstein's Remarks on Colour: “What then is the essential nature of cloudiness [Trüben, Trübe—cognate to French trouble; cloudiness, tarnish, murkiness; struggle, war]? For red or yellow transparent things are not cloudy; white is trübe. Is trüb that which conceals [verschleiert: what veils] forms, and conceals forms because it obliterates light and shadow?”2 Bourdieu: “In the reality of the social world, there are no more clear-cut boundaries, no more absolute breaks, than there are in the physical world. The boundaries between theoretical classes … are similar … to the boundaries of a cloud or a forest. These boundaries can thus be conceived of as lines or as imaginary planes, such that the density … is higher on the one side and lower on the other … [In fact, a more appropriate image would be that of a flame whose edges are in constant movement, oscillating around a line or surface].”3) A flame: the destruction of the line and the signature of the point-field. Here Velázquez's spinner spins the figure of labor-time that distinguishes the painting's first plane from the arrested times of the second and third planes. (And the fourth plane?) At the side of the figure here is a possible reference: Stradano's Penelope at the Loom, the central tondo on the ceiling of the Sala di Penelope, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence. Note the immobile, stationary spokes, the instantaneous wheel.
The spinning wheel, the moving point. At every moment, the area designated by the line the spinning point forms is both open and shut—troubled, rough, unclear, indistinct as to its edge. Materialization of labor-time upon the dialectic between the point of, as, the spinning edge and the destruction of the spokes of the wheel. Production of the O, not as the diagrammatic figure of enclosure but as the troubled and troubling motion of a point in time, an index of labor-time. The empty container of the spinning wheel balanced upon a set of spokes, elements supporting the trace of the point in motion, labor-time erasing the linear supports of its imaginary production.
Giorgio Vasari and Giovanni Stradano. Penelope at the Loom, Surrounded by River Gods, 1561–62. Oil on wood. Florence, Museo di Palazzo Vecchio. © Museo di Palazzo Vecchio. Image courtesy of Museo di Palazzo Vecchio.
Diego Velázquez. Las hilanderas, o la fábula de Aracne, between 1655 and 1660. Oil on canvas, 220 × 289 cm. Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado. © Museo Nacional del Prado. Image courtesy of Museo Nacional del Prado.
No class can “dominate” without a diagram. The O of the spinning wheel: the trouble of the counter-diagram, its struggle, its war—the temporalization, as labor-time, of the production of class's edge. (Icon: thought-product as color field; “field” unpossessed; “possession” of the quality “belongs to the field,” predicable-unpredictable of substance-elements “in” the field.)
Jacques Lezra teaches in the Department of Hispanic Studies at the University of California, Riverside. His publications include República salvaje: De la naturaleza de las cosas (2020), On the Nature of Marx's Things: Translation as Necrophilology (2018), Untranslating Machines: A Genealogy for the Ends of Global Thought (2017), and “Contra todos los fueros de la muerte”: El suceso cervantino (2016).
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, tr. G.E.M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), 14.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on Colour, ed. G.E.M. Anscombe, tr. Linda L. McAIister and Margarete Schättle (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1977), 15.
Pierre Bourdieu, “What Makes a Social Class? On The Theoretical and Practical Existence Of Groups,” Berkeley Journal of Socoilogy 32 (1987: 1–17), 13.
JOSÉ MARÍA DURÁN
Cultural Studies, HfM Hanns Eisler, Berlin
I am interested in works that predicate class positions, and my analysis focuses on art from the angle of the social causal bond in a dialectical manner, so that the work is seen as a complex structure of determinations.
The line of thought that interests me begins with the linguist and literary theorist Valentin Voloshinov (today largely neglected), travels through the work of Louis Althusser and Pierre Macherey (both poorly understood), and is articulated in the art historical analyses of Nicos Hadjinicolau and Michael Camille.1 All these authors understand art as an ideological practice, part of the ideological creativity of society. Their analyses focus on the process of social exchange—the dialectical interactions with the material basis that occur in the work of art—because art reworks, reproduces, reflects, or alludes to reality, even as it does this through the lenses of an artistic medium that has its own history and laws, implying a process of emergent qualitative transformation rather than mechanical causation. This thinking is crucial for the materialist analysis of art, but it has been misrepresented and thought of as deterministic by mainstream art historians who are ignorant of the important philosophical debates that run in the background of notions such as practice, reflection, ideology, and class. When the work of art is considered as the playing field of the subject (the distinctive character of the bourgeois legal ideology), then practice is transformed into creation and ideology becomes a worldview, while class is a fiction. Postmodern debates have complicated things even more, as in the theoretical framework that Grant Kester has put forward by the name of “dialogical art practices,” favoring flexible identities that strive for reconciliation. Kester's move has had the effect of displacing class struggle, moving it out of the analysis.2
Let's think of art as a device that projects an image of reality, but a distorted one, as in Marx's well-known metaphor of the camera obscura. At the time Marx wrote the famous line deploying this metaphor in The German Ideology, the camera obscura was a fashionable device and, as W. J. T. Mitchell has suggested,3 Marx could not have ignored the fact that the camera obscura was used as a leisure item by the proprietary classes and well-to-do bourgeois, who enjoyed the representation it produced of their wealth and who fell into the illusion that this representation was fact-based. The pictures weren't false per se, but as Marx pointed out, the real-life processes, the social relations upon which the wealth rested, were left out of the picture. What the camera obscura did was fix the idea that the well-to-do classes had about their wealth. The device worked as a mirror, in which a false consciousness was reflected; we could go so far as to say that the image was the production of such false consciousness. Today, Instagram can be seen as a mirror-device for the production of false consciousness too. But, what if we go beyond appearances and look at what does not come into view, acknowledging that the representation of wealth has turned a blind eye to the social relations that make wealth possible? Fred Wilson did so in his installation Mining the Museum (Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, 1992), by arranging a showcase, Metalwork 1973–1880, where silverware was displayed alongside shackles, bringing together two material witnesses of history that are rarely exhibited in connection. This element of class struggle, of economic and political violence, is also present in Regina José Galindo's use of her own skin and gender; in how Minerva Cuevas thematizes corporations and borders; or in the way Daniela Ortiz addresses racism, xenophobia, and colonialism. What follows from all these examples is an analysis of the work of art in all its complexity, a view of art as space for differently accentuated voices, an arena of class struggle.
As Erik O. Wright has pointed out,4 the most basic criterion for the Marxist tradition of class analysis is material interests. Material interests are related to social positions, and the class positions of artists within the system of art have been for the most part neglected by a scholarship dominated by a neoclassical bias and by a sociology à la Bourdieu that has been stripped of class struggle.5 One of my favorite artists who has established class positions in her work is Mierle L. Ukeles, because her work points to two fundamental ideas in this respect: class solidarity and contributive justice.6
Finally, I would further mention two works, not of contemporary visual art but mainstream film masterpieces, where the class positions of cultural workers come to the fore and are expressed within a complex set of ideologies encompassing gender, sex, and race. The films I have in mind are Dirty Dancing (1987) and Staying Alive (1983). Take the final dance in Dirty Dancing (“(I've Had) The Time of My Life”), when Patrick Swayze lifts Jennifer Grey off the ground: it's as if we see a powerful image of the basis-superstructure metaphor, implying the cultural worker's acceptance of the need to support the economic edifice embedded in hierarchical class divisions. In Staying Alive, after having experienced firsthand the miseries of the cultural industry, John Travolta figures out with whom he is going to side: he positions himself alongside his own class and struts with pride, walking the streets of downtown New York after having freed himself from the golden chains of the art system. In my view, these are two powerful images of class struggle.
José María Durán teaches in the Department of cultural studies at the Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler in Berlin. He is the author of Iconoclasia, historia del arte y lucha de clases (2009), La crítica de la economía política del arte (2015), and several articles on the political economy of art, including “Artistic Labour as a Form of Class Solidarity and Contributive Justice: Revisiting Mierle Laderman Ukeles's Work” (2019).
I have outlined the similarities between Voloshinov's and Althusser's understanding of the relation between art and ideology in José María Durán, “Arte, ideología y materialismo en Valentin Voloshinov, Bertolt Brecht y Louis Althusser,” Demarcaciones: Revista Latinoméricana de Estudios Althusserianos 6 (May 2018), http://revistademarcaciones.cl/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/12.-Dura%CC%81n.pdf. On Hadjinicolau, see José María Durán, Hacia una crítica de la economía política del arte (Madrid: Plaza y Valdés, 2008), 19–31.
José María Durán, “Brecht, Dialectics and Dialogical Art: An Engagement with Contemporary Art Practices,” in Philosophizing Brecht: Critical Readings on Art, Consciousness, Social Theory and Performance, ed. Norman Roessler and Anthony Squiers (Leiden and Boston: Brill and Rodopi, 2019), 145–78.
W. J. T. Mitchell, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).
Erik Olin Wright, Understanding Class (London: Verso, 2015).
José María Durán, La crítica de la economía política del arte (Murcia, Spain: CENDEAC, 2015).
José María Durán, “Artistic Labour as a Form of Class Solidarity and Contributive Justice: Revisiting Mierle Laderman Ukeles's Work,” Parse 9 (Spring 2019), https://parsejournal.com/article/artistic-labour-as-a-form-of-class-solidarity-and-contributive-justice-revisiting-mierle-laderman-ukeless-work/.
I will start with art. I do not mind the word art, provided that we insist that art is not limited to what you find in galleries or museums. I doubt I have anything of interest to add about the “art world” and its contradictory relation to finance capitalism—as both a perversely exaggerated manifestation of finance capitalism and the place where it is often most explicitly critiqued. I'd tentatively note that if the art world is interesting at all, it is interesting to the extent that it exploits this contradiction and becomes a site for experimenting with what work and “a work” might mean in relation to the idea of value.
In my own writing I have primarily focused on cinema and the ways it has been understood as political. Cinema poses its own version of the contradiction between the relation to capitalism and the explicit politics of an art form—the more an art is mass democratic, available to everyone, the more it is imbricated with the commodity form, and the more it is “likely to respond to the aspirations of big capital,” as Fernando Solanas stated in 1969.1 These contradictions give the theorist something to do—for instance, by finding the cracks or fissures where the film écriture undermines the explicit ideology of John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), or by revealing the unconscious class allegory in Dog Day Afternoon (1975).2 On the other hand, the more cinema exposes its own devices and critiques dominant ideologies, the more it is restricted to educated elites and associated with cultural capital. In this case, the theorist enjoys a close proximity to the filmmaker by becoming the latter's explicator, while the filmmaker in turn must instrumentalize his or her work to make it legible as counter-cinema.
The discipline of film studies has often been keen to disavow the category of art or to restrict that category to a certain genre, so-called “art cinema.” Art here is code for bourgeois. But I remain attracted to Walter Benjamin's suggestion—with some ambivalence—that the issue is not whether film is an art but whether it is an emblem for a transformation of the very idea of art to one that is essentially democratic. After all, for all the attempts to bring Benjamin into the digital age, nobody seems quite able to articulate what that new, more egalitarian conception of art might be without devolving into a TED talk fantasy about participatory culture that is fully in line with the ideology of Silicon Valley. The question is how to maintain a concept of art as distinct from information or communication that, as Benjamin put it, everyone has a claim on.
Class struggle: I do think it is important that we do not forget to think of class in terms of struggle, which is to say, as not being predetermined or subject to inexorable laws of evolution. But there are two sides to class struggle: the attempt to maintain the relations of production and the attempt to abolish them. For example, what is being called “neoliberalism,” the ideology that has justified the global economy of the 21st century, is not the elimination of regulations or the handing over of everything to the market, but rather an aggressive form of class warfare effectively designed to redistribute income upward, from the poor to the rich.
I would introduce two other words into the discussion, not to replace class struggle, but to supplement or interpret that term. These words are equality and contingency. The goal of class struggle from the point of view of the proletariat is the elimination of class, or to use another word, equality. What is the relation between art and equality? Here, I think contingency is fundamental. Art cannot provide the blueprint for revolution; however, it can say, “this world is not the only possible one.” Art, it seems to me, should not be put only in the service of reminding us of the fact of class stratification, of pointing to it and reinforcing its inevitability. If art can, in its own way, participate in class struggle, then this happens through suspending class hierarchies and inscribing a precarious form of equality. The problems with what I have just said will seem obvious: it is a bourgeois privilege to imagine that art somehow is able to access a realm of experience outside of class. What is the difference between suspending and disavowing or repressing? This is not an easy question, but artworks are where we might look for an answer.
There is no necessary relation between art and class struggle. But at the risk of indulging a paradox, I believe that this lack of a necessary relation is fundamental to how art relates to class struggle. For while it seems obvious that art cannot be completely dissociated from class struggle, at the same time, the relationship between the two cannot be immediate. In other words, art cannot effectively contribute to class struggle merely by signaling commitment to the critique of capitalism or by showing awareness of exploitation or empathy for the oppressed. Critique and knowledge are not themselves art. If art means anything at all, it means something not reducible to an intended message. “Empathy machines” are the opposite of art. They are the business model of social-media platforms and require resentment as the base affect for which empathy (feeling/sharing the other's resentment) is posited as the antidote.
Let's be crude about this: what bad art does is negate the experience of contingency, make class not into a struggle but into something inevitable and insurmountable. This is why art that explicitly identifies as anticapitalist may be just as reactionary as art that identifies as apolitical. What good art makes possible is an experience of the contingency of class relations, or of all relations. In the phrase art and class struggle, the most difficult word may be the and. If art can do anything, its power relates to this question of the and—constructing a different way of understanding how art and class struggle might be linked.
Nico Baumbach teaches film and media studies at Columbia University. He is the author of Cinema/Politics/Philosophy (2019).
Quoted in Paul Willemen, “The Third Cinema Question: Notes and Reflections,” in New Latin American Cinema, Vol. 1: Theories, Practices, and Transcontinental Articulations, ed. Michael T. Martin (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1997), 229.
See “Cahiers du Cinéma, John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln: A Collective Text by the Editors of Cahiers du Cinéma” Screen 13, no. 3 (Autumn 1972): 5–44, and Fredric Jameson, “Class and Allegory in Contemporary Mass Culture: Dog Day Afternoon as a Political Film,” College English 38, no. 8 (1977): 843–59.
University of Illinois at Chicago
The 1974 Portuguese Revolution was both the culmination of the global upsurge in political militancy from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s and a direct consequence of the success of national liberation movements that led to the independence of Portugal's African colonies in Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau. This revolution also coincided with the rise of Third Cinema and other forms of committed filmmaking. The events in Portugal between 1974 and 1977 were filmed live by multiple leftist filmmakers from elsewhere who flocked to Portugal after the fall of the dictatorship. Glauber Rocha, Robert Kramer, and Thomas Harlan, among others, produced a body of work that revealed class struggle in action, the euphoria of the revolutionary process, and that also posed questions regarding the politics of representation itself (both political and filmic). Harlan's Terra Bela (1977), probably the most celebrated film to emerge from the revolutionary period, documented farmworkers’ occupation of an estate belonging to an aristocratic family in a preemptive strike for agrarian reform, in collaboration with the residents of nearby villages in the Ribatejo region.
I want to reflect on the degree to which this cinema has left its trace on contemporary filmmaking in Portugal, a country where bourgeois democracy eventually defeated the revolution and laid the groundwork for the current neoliberal order. Portugal today has some of the world's most interesting cineasts currently at work—most notably Pedro Costa, Rita Azevedo Gomes, and Miguel Gomes, but there are many others. Contemporary Portuguese filmmakers, I suggest, are not any less political or critical than their predecessors. However, the times, the context, and above all else, the political climate—and with it, the balance of class forces—have changed; indeed, it is that taut and complex relation to the now, to the contemporary, that makes the current filmmakers’ politics interesting. These two generations of filmmakers have engaged in a discordant and disconcerting dialogue marked by the distortions of time and distance, between the then and the now, between what Rancière has called the “here and elsewhere”: a sense of the untimely, marked by displacement.1 At least two elements intensify this dialogue. The first is the common interest and importance attributed to the material elements of filmmaking and the way the films disrupt teleological narrative, showing a concern for the politics of the image itself. The second is a disputed concept of place and the aura that surrounds it.
Linha vermelha/Red Line (dir. José Filipe Costa, 2012) revisited Harlan's film Terra Bela shortly after the German director's death in 2010. In a series of interviews with some of the surviving protagonists of the occupation and with members of the original crew of Terra Bela, the thesis of the new film—sympathetic to its subject matter—is that Harlan sought to stage-manage the dramatic moments of the occupation and exaggerate the revolutionary message of the film itself. Roberto Perpignani, who edited Terra Bela, recognizes these manipulations and refers to the “power of the image.” Elsewhere José Costa has supplemented his film with an essay tellingly titled “When Cinema Forges the Event: The Case of Torre Bela.”2 Forty years later, the heady effervescence of the films of the revolution has given way to a more muted, subtle, less combative, yet still explicitly political cinema. What José Filipe Costa identifies as the analog era's potentially tendentious editing-room practices continue in our own digital age.
If Terra Bela became an iconic site of revolutionary fervor thanks to Harlan's film, today's Portuguese filmmakers tend toward a poetics of place. Tarrafal, the location of the notorious concentration camp on the island of Santiago in the Cabo Verde archipelago, where the Salazar regime sent its political opponents to their death, haunts the cinema of another director, Pedro Costa, in its focus on marginalized, immigrant workers from Cabo Verde and on white drug addicts in the slums of Lisbon. The prison is a constant, generally unspoken presence that condenses particularly in the figure of Ventura, who appears to a lesser or greater extent in all the films shot in Fontainhas, a poverty-stricken Lisbon neighborhood, prior to its demolition. Pedro Costa has followed a spiraling trajectory since his second feature, Casa de lava (1994), which was haunted by the secondary presence of Edith, a white woman who moved to Tarrafal to be near her imprisoned lover, who would die in his turn. Imbued with historical nuance, this feature marks the point from which Costa's films focus on dwelling, place, displacement, and the transitory, as well as on the methodology of film itself. Not long after, disappointed with the results of using intrusive large-scale sets with professional crews and actors, Pedro Costa reassessed his filmmaker practice. After the first of his Fontainhas films (Ossos/Bones, 1997), he opted to use smaller digital cameras and minimal sound equipment. His dense 2007 short film Tarrafal is exemplary of this different approach. With the film's stories of ghostly mythic bloodsucking figures—corollaries of the state—its sense of exile and longing, and the harsh realities of racist violence, prison, and expulsion, the director records a group of Cabo Verdeans—among them Ventura—in and around a hut on the outskirts of Lisbon. Shifting from dark to light, interior to exterior, life to death, via a series of letters or messages, the film ends with a shot of a deportation notice pinned to a wall. Amid a constant sense of dislocation and swirl, the concentration camp goes unmentioned, yet its presence is inescapably embedded in the title and the allusiveness of the filmic text.
Susana de Sousa Dias. Fordlandia malaise. 2019. Film still.
A contemporary of both Costas, Susana de Sousa Dias, has directed documentaries that address the Salazarist repression and how to represent it.3 Her early films use archive material, and particularly still photography, to detail the testimony of political prisoners from the dictatorship. In contrast, her most recent work, like Pedro Costa's Tarrafal, combines 21st-century technology with mythical narrative in ways that complicate memory. Shot in Brazil, Fordlandia malaise (2019) focuses on an abandoned settlement—a company town and corporate utopia— carved out in 1927 by Henry Ford on the banks of the Tapajos River in the Amazon rainforest, to obtain rubber directly from the source and thus break the British monopoly. Simultaneous with the visual images—a mixture of archival material and drone footage of the denuded current landscape—the voice-over narration recounts the ancestral myths of the indigenous people of the region, blending them with the reminiscences of local people. The disjunction between voice and image points to the malaise of the film's title; it is a spectral investigation of neocolonialism, capital, and the violence of extraction and exploitation.
Steven Marsh teaches Spanish and Portuguese film in the Department of Hispanic & Italian Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the author of several publications, including Spanish Cinema against Itself: Cosmopolitanism, Experimentation, and Militancy (2020). Marsh is currently preparing a book on judicial politics in contemporary Spain and a series of essays on Spanish and Portuguese cinema.
Jacques Rancière, The Intervals of Cinema, trans. John Howe (London: Verso, 2014), 136.
“When Cinema Forges the Event: The Case of Torre Bela,” Third Text 25, no. 1 (2011): 105–116.
Her work includes Naturaleza morta/Still Life (2005), 48 (2010), and Luz obscura/Obscure Light (2017).
Simon Fraser University, Vancouver
This class has nothing to safeguard for itself.
To the contrary, any individual safeguard it has to destroy.
The specter of class haunts our present, but in ways no communist would deem fit to applaud. Long after the cynical grandchildren of the Second International promoted the euthanasia of social antagonism for the sake of glossy vistas of financialized affluence, and long after myriad farewells to the proletariat were sung in the halls of academia, that apparent industrial anachronism, the working class, has made a number of grotesque and spectacular returns.
National, white, male; this is a class whose discursive prominence is proportional to the ambiguity of its referent. Propped up by the dubious objectivity of marketing and polling taxonomies—such as those that divide the British body politic into ABC1 and C2DE—it is a potent fantasy of (threatened) identity and belonging, emphatically not a relation to the apparatuses of production, exploitation, and accumulation (which would reveal a proletariat neither predominantly national, nor male, nor white). Labor and production have returned as objects of nostalgic ressentiment: the base as the dream of the superstructure.
Far from amounting to a betrayal of an unsullied history of conflict and emancipation, the reactionary trope of the abandoned working class is a legacy of the capture, integration, and promotion of class as a crucial operator in the workings of the national-social state, whose reality and representation continues to shape and constrain our present. It is not simply that, as Marx famously avowed, class was a product of bourgeois historiography and political economy; a defense of the working class can very well be articulated in exclusionary and reactionary terms, a fact that is not properly accounted for by the idea of a “betrayal” of some naturally progressive impulse—what Leo Lowenthal once called “the myth of the spontaneous and creative forces of the exploited.”2
The contradictory, internally antagonistic history of the working class is not just a story of solidarity against the odds, triumphs of discipline, Sisyphean efforts to civilize capital, and epic insurgencies to terminate it; it is also a record of “hate strikes” for racially exclusive trade unions, passionate attachments to empire, chauvinism bolstered by ideologies of labor, anti-immigrant demands for a national preference in the labor market, and fascism taking on the mantle of the “proletarian nation.”
It is the latter history that we find indicted in Lenin's fulminations against social imperialism and the labor aristocracy, in Du Bois's enduring diagnosis of the psychological wages of whiteness, in radical and third world feminisms agitating for wages for housework and revealing the intimate bonds between patriarchy, racism, and capital. Class is not just a name for social and political division; it must itself be divided, its historical fault lines traced, its ethical ruptures identified.
One precious clue for such a division can be drawn from a footnote to Walter Benjamin's inexhaustibly influential essay on the artwork in the epoch of its reproducibility. Chiming with, while innovating upon, the communist identification of the petty bourgeoisie as a key conduit for the politics of fascism, Benjamin operates a détournement of anti-socialist theories of the crowd to argue that it is not the proletariat, the lumpen, or the poor who make up the modern crowd, but a fearful, reactive, compact grouping best captured in the figure of the petty bourgeoisie. As Benjamin observes:
John Heartfield. Mimikry, 1934. Rotogravure. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
The mass [or crowd] as an impenetrable, compact entity, which Le Bon and others have made the subject of their “mass psychology” is that of the petty bourgeoisie. The petty bourgeoisie is not a class; it is in fact only a mass. And the greater the pressure acting on it between the two antagonistic classes of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the more compact it becomes. In this mass, the emotional element described in mass psychology is indeed a determining factor…. Demonstrations by the compact mass thus always have a panicked quality—whether they give vent to war fever, hatred of Jews, or the instinct for self-preservation.3
In his incisive 2019 book Class, Andrea Cavalletti has glossed Benjamin in the following terms:
When there is no solidarity or consciousness, there is no class; there is only the petty-bourgeois mass, with its well-behaved psychology…. The petty bourgeoisie is not, as Benjamin teaches us, a class: it is only a compressed mass between the rich bourgeoisie and the proletariat. From this non-class, every fascism will produce its “people,” masking this mere compression in the archaic and inseparable names of community, fatherland, work, blood, leader.4
Benjamin's suggestion that class consciousness should be understood in terms of a loosening rather than a becoming compact, and that class solidarity is pitted against identity and belonging corroborates Adorno's words of praise in his otherwise sharply critical comments to his friend's work in progress on Baudelaire and the Paris Arcades: “your few sentences about the disintegration of the proletariat as ‘masses’ are among the profoundest and most powerful statements of political theory that I have encountered since I read [Lenin's] State and Revolution.”5
To cleave any conception of the proletariat away from the petty psychology of the masses is especially vital when our political imaginaries, across the spectrum, are saturated by strange replicas and refractions of a “classical” class struggle that abides as an object of nostalgic desire and stubborn misrecognition. Class politics as the practical negation of mass psychology: this horizon remains profoundly, painfully contemporary. Benjamin once famously spoke of making concepts “completely useless for the purposes of fascism.”6 Our current moment has made it urgent to carry out this operation for class, too.
Alberto Toscano teaches in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University, and the Department of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea (2017, 2nd ed.) and, with Jeff Kinkle, Cartographies of the Absolute (2015). He is a member of the editorial board of Historical Materialism.
Bertolt Brecht, “The Manifesto,” trans. Darko Suvin, Socialism and Democracy 16, no. 1(2002): 9.
Leo Lowenthal, “Letter to Theodor W. Adorno, 13 October 1944,” in Critical Theory and Frankfurt Theorists: Lectures-Correspondence-Conversations (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1989), 132.
Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility (Second Version),” in Selected Writings, Volume 3, 1935–1938, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2002), 129.
Andrea Cavalletti, Class, ed. Alberto Toscano, trans. Elisa Fiaccadori (Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2019), 55.
Letter of March 18, 1936 (sent from London): Theodor W. Adorno, “Letters to Walter Benjamin,” in Aesthetics and Politics, ed. Ernst Bloch (London: New Left Books, 1977), 126.
Benjamin, “The Work of Art,” 102.
Goldsmiths, University of London
It is important to focus on labor in the field of art, however labor is defined, so as to counter mystifications of art as genius, as well as to question neoliberal ideas about human capital in creative industries. The analysis of labor in art should be undertaken with a negative (critical) scope, rather than an affirmative one. This goes for labor politics in general, insofar as they represent one aspect of a revolutionary orientation toward the present—”revolutionary” in the sense of taking up the perspective of the overcoming of this present. This is no doubt a both/and question, since organizing around material conditions of injustice requires affirmative moments for anything like a countervision to the existing order to take root among large groups of people who are conditioned both professionally and socially to see themselves as individuals in competition for scarce resources in a “meritocratic” market. Labor in art thus instantiates a form of “double consciousness”: it affirms itself as an organizing tactic in a field that denies it, but it also contests itself, as well as the field of art, as an aspect of its speculative force. Labor politics in art have to overcome both labor and art, which is institutionalized as the antimatter of labor.
A lot of the ambiguity regarding artistic labor has to do with the structure and organization of this labor, with how it is deemed to be so different from other kinds of labor that it cannot be regulated or provide a ground for organizing in anything like the same way that other kinds of labor do. This stems from the assumption that nonartistic labor is homogeneous, as opposed to the incalculable particularity of artistic labor. Yet this is hardly the case when the dominant trends of hyper-fragmentation and the precarity of contracts and conditions are taken into account, from the gig economy of food delivery to the gig economy of academia. These differences are also at the root of the disavowal of labor in art—hence the super-exploitation of this labor, as in any other field where collective or structural conditions are mystified or hidden. The basis of this mystification is the resistance to recognizing the artist as a subject of labor or including the artist among other cultural workers whose labor is often waged, albeit lightly regulated. Both of these exclusions are premised on the willful refusal to separate artistic work from artistic labor—that is, to separate art as an activity from the working conditions in the field—and thus, ultimately, to refuse to see one's work and one's activity as imbricated in power relations along an axis of responsibility and negation, or in other words, in shared conditions that can serve as a basis for political organization. Common approaches to art and labor protect the threatened status of the artistic subjectivity, which many in the field have been educated and socialized to believe is exceptional and an escape route from meaningless forms of employment. This may be the reason why, when artists find themselves in labor situations with the humdrum characteristics of service, standardization, and exploitation that they had sought to escape by going into the arts, they don't identify with these situations enough to do anything about them. This is increasingly true for nonartists, as well, and is a mindset very difficult to shed, regardless of the political contents of any artistic work that is being produced. Because the autonomy of art is a social institution with material effects, it is not a personal belief or sectoral ideology that individuals may or may not choose to adopt. This is why, as I have suggested elsewhere, the contested autonomy of art is structurally similar to the realized autonomy of financialized capital.
We need to distinguish between the labor of the artist as author and all the other kinds of the labor included in the social materiality of art, as well as in the technical or institutional conditions for the circulation of art, from fabrication to exhibition to pedagogy. But then, the question of the technical and political composition of art also emerges, as in the class-composition analysis developed by autonomist Marxism. Briefly, the technical composition of a field refers to how the field is organized institutionally and economically, whereas its political composition represents the potential to reorder or refuse those conditions. Because there are many ways to articulate the politics of artistic labor, the act of “calling out” the invisibility of labor in the field of art, as with any other injustice or element of structural—and structuring—violence, is not useful if this is the extent of the intervention, hoping only to regulate an intolerable situation. If that approach is limited by its gesturality, however, the politics of artistic labor do not need to be thus limited when strategies of transversality can be developed and deepened with other workers (horizontally) and with the dominant conditions of accumulation and value in the field (vertically). Both these directions describe class struggle in the field of art.
Goldsmiths Justice for Cleaners campaign, 2018. Photograph by José da silva. © The Art Newspaper/José da silva.
We find a local example of artistic class struggle in 2018, in the blockade of the opening of the Goldsmiths Centre of Contemporary Art, as part of the Justice for Workers student and staff solidarity campaign for the struggle of cleaners to be in-housed by the university. Another example can be found in the coordination, however preliminary, between activist groups campaigning against current manifestations of the military-industrial complex that supports art institutions, exhibiting artists, and the workers in art institutions. An example of this would be the relatively recent case of Warren Kanders and the Whitney Biennial in New York, which is different again from the somewhat similarly motivated Sydney Biennale boycott of 2014, called by the exhibiting artists and not initially by a coalition. The need for a coalition seems pretty basic, but it's not always clear from a lot of the activism around art institutions in recent years, including eco-activism, that coordination of different groups is necessarily sought or even desired. Perhaps workers are tacitly on board with standing aside to let protests take place, as in the action of the protest group BP or Not BP? at the British Museum, and perhaps there are concerns about exposing workers to managerial retribution with too-visible forms of coordination on the part of activist groups. But most of the time, the conditions and demands of institutional employees, who are frequently super-precarious or indirectly employed, are not part of the campaigns targeting the atrocious investments and alliances that characterize powerful cultural institutions.
I conclude by raising another, related question: how does the labor of cultural workers reproduce both the physical and the “social and moral element” of art institutions? This question could provide a basis for cultural workers to consider coordinating their efforts with those of socially reproductive workers operating in wholly different coordinates of race, class, and social status—namely, service workers whose reproductive labor is not even mystified, just constantly degraded. Certainly a discussion cannot be had, in a space characterized by its attention to the ethical, as the art world purports to be, about what prospects a more material politics have for taking hold if these politics do not address a wider horizon of injustice. That wider horizon is of course reflected in the working conditions and representational moves of the art world, as has been abundantly evidenced by unionizing campaigns both pre- and post-COVID in Western art institutions, as well as by these institutions’ paper-thin commitments to racial justice, so often exposed by the George Floyd rebellion. In the liberal infrastructure of political thinking, or feeling, perhaps, in the institution of art, labor struggles are considered to be narrow and particular rather than to be instances of a concrete universal. I argue that the generalization of precarity can make these kinds of coordination both more politically obvious and more materially difficult to realize.
Marina Vishmidt teaches in the Media, Communications, and Cultural Studies Department at Goldsmiths, University of London. She is the author of Speculation as a Mode of Production (2018) and Reproducing Autonomy (2016, with Kerstin Stakemeier).
The New School, New York
I thank Megan Elevado, Lygia Georgiou, Ramiro Gomez, Dana Kopel, Ben Parker, Maida Rosenstein, and Brett Wallace for their assistance in the preparation of the manuscript.
The art establishment is unaccustomed to talking about labor. While there exists a robust modernist tradition of institutional critique, the kind of labor activism that follows often remains within the practice of art. This includes the members of the Art Workers Coalition (1969–71); Occupy Museums’ Debtfair, a survey of 500 artists’ financial debts; and the Gulf Labor Coalition, which advocates for migrant-worker protections at international museum outposts on Saadiyat Island.1 Calling such activities “art” or “political action” matters less than the function the work ultimately fulfills. There is room, and need, for both. But passing politics off as art blunts the demands of the former, dispersing targeted political energies into an air of vague discontent that is already the currency of so much contemporary art. More cynically, it is possible to see such posturing as necessary to the critical appraisal and subsequent valuation of artworks. In an era where there is no shortage of “political” art, we must ask what kind of work such a label is doing, and whom it ultimately serves.
Working conditions, wages, and job security are rarely treated as artistic concerns, though they intersect with the museum as a workplace. Labor organizing has occurred in spaces such as the New Museum, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, to name a few examples. These efforts have been led by white-collar workers of the type listed in the Arts + All Museums Salary Transparency spreadsheet from 2019, a crowdsourced database of jobs, including curator, conservator, designer, and archivist, among others.2 Such workers have some training or otherwise have a vested interest in art, but they hardly account for all museum workers.
Less visible, but no less important, are the many workers required for museums to function, including those we now call “essential” or “frontline” workers: cleaners, porters, HVAC systems operators, local operating engineers, and security staff. Regarding the 10,000 layoffs that had occurred at arts institutions since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic at the time of writing, Dana Kopel observes that this number does not include “people who are rarely considered ‘employees’ to begin with: temporary, contract, and gig workers.”3 On some level, these lowest-paid workers accept invisibility as part of their working conditions, as it is their job to tidy inefficiencies and the traces of human presence, including themselves. They receive the least union protection, and many are not even directly employed by museums, but rather subcontracted through private equity firms, which leaves them subject to wage theft and other forms of exploitation. In this respect, contemporary art has entirely failed to engage in class struggle on its home turf.
Brett Wallace, who has been documenting organizing efforts on his “labor notebook” blog Work and Art within and beyond Crisis, points to the discrepancy between the stated mission of arts institutions and the disregard for the workers tasked to carry out those principles. There is an “asymmetry between the museum as a steward of cultural vision and the labor conditions that are kept behind the scenes.”4 Obstacles to unionization come not only from boards and administrators, but also from more entrenched internal, cultural barriers. Union organization in the arts is stratified by class of work, rather than vertically integrated within an institution. DC 37 Local 1502 represents clerical associates, secretaries, educators, technicians, security guards, and graphic artists at the Brooklyn Museum, the Brooklyn Children's Museum, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. 32BJ SEIU, which organizes cleaners across many industries, represents cleaners and security at MoMA, whereas white-collar staff are represented by United Auto Workers 2110.5 Local 2110 also represents white-collar workers at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Tenement Museum, and the New Museum. Meanwhile, at MoMA P.S.i. and the Guggenheim, facilities workers and art handlers have recently gained representation by the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 30, but curators and other administrative staff are not unionized.
Wallace describes this as “different swim lanes,” where people of one work class perform their jobs in parallel with those of another. Under such conditions, it is difficult to foster a frank conversation about pay, job security, and solidarity. There are also significant differences in class, ethnicity, gender, and age among museum workers, and many of these differences map onto classes of work. The current labor organizers, who hold white-collar positions, are mostly white, female, young, and native English speakers, and there is a significant obstacle of trust when it comes to cleaners, who are more often older, Spanish-speaking Latinos. Meanwhile, the association with 20th-century blue-collar factory workers can be off-putting to intellectual laborers in a museum, who feel little connection to these working-class unions. This association can also be disingenuous, with white workers sometimes engaging in what Megan Elevado calls “performative solidarity.” Even with the same title, white and nonwhite workers may occupy distinctly different class positions, and more often than not, the white worker better absorbs the financial and emotional shock of being furloughed or laid off.6
Vertical integration is crucial for a social-justice-oriented labor politics aimed at achieving the maximum benefit for the most vulnerable, lowest-paid, and—most often—nonwhite workers. This means leveraging the relative power of those with more advantages. It is one thing to rail against Dana Schutz's appropriation of Black suffering, another to advocate for expansive healthcare provisions at one's own institution. Meanwhile, there is promise for horizontal organization. Local 30 includes operating engineers at MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the American Museum of Natural History, while DC 37 advocates for a coalition of 150,000 municipal workers that includes blue-collar employees at the Bronx Museum of the Arts.
Beyond unionization, some artists have created new social configurations within museum communities. I am interested in work that short-circuits the commodity valuation of art by redirecting it to those who would seem least connected to the activity of art within a museum. I have in mind certain works by Los Angeles artist Ramiro Gomez. In 2016, Gomez was commissioned by the Denver Art Museum to create an artwork. He developed a series of portraits featuring Lupita, a janitor working on site. As a painter, Gomez first reached prominence for his insertion of Black and brown workers into wealthy, manicured spaces. His collaboration with Lupita drew directly from his own life; his mother, a previously undocumented immigrant from Mexico, is a public-school custodian. Gomez encountered significant institutional pushback, including an objection to the logo painted on Lupita's uniform. He later learned the logo was for a janitorial-services vendor that the museum had since replaced. Lupita, too, had left her job before her image was hung on the walls of the gallery she once had swept.
Ramiro Gomez. Lupita 1, 2017. Painted bronze, 60.25 × 45 × 11.75 inches. Denver Art Museum. Image courtesy of the artist and Charlie James Gallery, Los Angeles. Photograph by Michael Underwood.
In 2017, Gomez participated in Figure/Ground: Beyond the White Field, organized by artist Rafa Esparza at the Whitney Biennial. Working on a scrap of cardboard, Gomez painted a portrait of Esparza's father, who was assisting with the installation. Gomez gave the painting to Esparza's father, and he continued to make portraits of cleaners at the museum and then gifted them to the sitters. Gomez's actions produced a column of vertical integration, whereby the museum's existing social division was revealed and momentarily altered. Later, when Esparza asked his father to bring his painting back for the show, his father refused. This decision, which resisted the museum's logic of exhibition and valuation, helped Gomez realize that the “institution is empty. [Instead] it's all been about us, ourselves, our journey, our struggle.”7
Genevieve Yue teaches in the Department of Culture and Media and serves as director of the Screen Studies program at Eugene Lang College, the New School, New York City. She is the author of Girl Head: Feminism and Film Materiality (2020).
See Julia Bryan-Wilson, Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).
Arts + All Museums Salary Transparency, 2019, https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/u/1/d/14_cn3afoas7NhKvHWaFKqQGkaZS5rvL6DFxzGqXQa6o/htmlview?usp=sharing.
Dana Kopel, “The Museum Does Not Exist,” Ssense, May 13, 2020, https://www.ssense.com/en-us/editorial/culture/the-museum-does-not-exist.
Brett Wallace, phone interview with the author, October 10, 2020.
See “MoMA Salary Minimums 2018–2023,” http://www.2110uaw.org/cbas/MoMA_Salary_Minimums_2018-2023.pdf.
Megan Elevado, phone interview with the author, October 2, 2020.
Ramiro Gomez, phone interview with the author, August 20, 2020.