The absolute state of art under capitalism

In Paris in 1851, the artist Gustave Courbet provoked fury in the upper classes merely by displaying paintings that featured the French peasantry as subjects. In the midst of intense class struggle, Courbet’s work came at a time where his art reflected an affront to the upper classes’ political power, and that art was treated as dangerous and scandalous accordingly. Twenty years later, having been a pioneer of this genre that came to be known as social real-ism, Courbet was one of the leading artists of the Paris Commune.

Today, the power of a good critique to shake the ruling class and petty bourgeoisie is not dead, thank God, just observe the moral panic around Joker. A film clearly showing economic alienation and austerity as the sources of deadly social pathologies and triggers for revolution sent the media class into such a tailspin that they leaped at any alternate explanation. It was Arthur Fleck’s dreaded inceldom, or his sexism, or his racism: all purely self-inflicted states, eliminating any possibility of sympathising with the character, or understanding how to change the forces that sent him down these paths.

While we all enjoy the schadenfreude of watching pundits cry over a movie about a clown who hates Batman, does art with the working class as subjects today really inspire revolution? Although Joker does make allusions to the 2011 London Riots and Occupy Wall Street, perhaps it is not comparable to having the 1848 Revolutions fresh in its mind like Courbet would have. Art can no doubt contribute to a feedback loop of action and reflection if revolutionary conditions are strong in the air. But today, do we really expect that from art – especially art that comes from the guy who directed The Hangover and the writer of 8 Mile? One complication that stands in the way in contemporary media is the Hollywood machine, which moulds these products to be sellable; tying them up in advertising, awards, star performers, publicity and media cycles. While the studios are the ones that control the content and form of the art, the media class are the section of the ruling class that police acceptable cultural criticism and interpretation of it. This machine intervenes in what art is and how it is understood. Art’s transformation into entertainment is completed in all these ways by what we call the culture industry.

The culture industry is a behemoth, and one that cannot be simply dealt with by subverting the system from inside. All media, advertising and art, is flattened to its affects and made exchangeable in the culture industry. Even dissent does not escape it. From Kendall Jenner handing a Pepsi to a cop, to Banksy, anticapitalist critique is preemptively incorporated into the system of the culture industry and profit comes out the other side.

You can imagine the pain piggies at Sootheby’s squeal with excitement when Banksy shredded his Girl with Balloon in front of them. They beg for daddy Banksy to spit on them and tell them how disgusting it is that they’ve reduced art to a dollar figure, as long as he never actually challenges their power and inadvertently doubles the asset value of his critique he sold them. As the culture industry relies primarily on affect as a consumable unit, the artists must produce work that provokes critical imagination. This can be by extreme metaphor, analogy, or the imagination of a completely different society, as well as the artist always remaining a critical distance, never allowing work that perfectly fits an audience’s pre-conceptions or moral worldview. When art merely sat-isfies as didactic, or affirms an audience’s present feelings, the audience has nothing to hold onto from there: their experience begins and ends with the work, and remains entirely passive. Pure art propaganda directed towards already radicalised leftists under the culture industry makes a subset of consumers out of radicals. Under the culture industry, the artist’s challenge is to give the viewer a world outside their experience: outside capitalism, and outside of themselves.

Now, when we talk about the culture industry, the impulse may be to think about mass production, the desire to simply entertain, and therefore only associate the culture industry to the “low-arts”, popular film, television, music, or anything pop culture. But alas, in a neoliberal, fully privatised world, not much escapes its grasps. Elitist “high-arts” institutions are not exempt from the trappings of capitalism and while they are usually skilled at avoiding the more garish elements of consumerism, it catches up with them eventually. An excellent, hilarious, only-in-late-capitalism example of this was the public stoush over whether promotion for the Everest Horse Racing cup should be projected onto the sails of Sydney Opera House in 2018. All sorts of enlightened takes abounded. Reactionary media made it a battleground in the culture war, decrying the elitism of those who didn’t want to see the pastime of the working class on their precious Opera House: as if it was the decision of the working class to pool their money for this advertisement so they could see themselves on the big white sails, rather than a bloodless exchange between two institutions controlling capital. Left-liberal demonstrators took to Circular Quay on the night to disrupt the advertisement’s lighting, shouting that the Opera House was ‘not for sale’, as if this was the first time that the Opera House served some private interest. This encapsulates exactly why left-liberals fail to understand the endemic problem of stratification in the arts: they are only concerned that to them, those institutions don’t do anything “gauche”. The worst approach to the arts is one that is purely aesthetic.

Such stratification occurs with the aid of the state, with most arts funding flowing to these types of high art institutions like the Opera House. Year-on-year, Create NSW tends to have a smaller number of recipients in total, leaving only a small handful of elite organisations (al-though, it must be mentioned, that these institutions make a huge amount of private revenue as well). Perhaps the state makes these interventions to ensure that a high-art/low-art distinction is not completely demolished by the market, leaving the ruling class to enjoy some difference between themselves and who they see as the uncultured swine.

But, surprise! Coronavirus has decimated the economy of the arts, revealing its incredibly deep fault lines. Carriageworks went into administration only to be saved by a number of private philanthropists. While admittedly better than developers sinking their teeth into the property and triggering yet another public sell-off, how is this essentially different from the arts institutions that have been privileged through funding? Whether state rescue packages or philanthropists, the outcome is just another concentration at the top when this privilege is only afforded to few elite institutions.

It is very difficult for us to imagine a communist ordering of the entirety of the arts with so few examples in the recent past. Piracy gives us a good insight into disrupting copyright, but only intervenes in the cycle of consumption and not of production. Anarchists have a proud history of how they organise the arts, for and by the working class. These examples should be foundational to how we think about reforming the arts today. The bourses du travail of the CGT in France were all-in-one job centres, educational facilities and included theatres and libraries, all operating independently of state and private ownership. The artists of the Paris Commune produced a manifesto outlining how councils of arts administrations would be appointed democratically by communities of artists themselves, as well as overseeing public art schools and the creation of public higher education buildings for the arts. Although the dreams of the Paris Commune did not materialise, these examples are an inspiring far cry from the capital-hungry or bureaucratic forces that control the arts today.

The conditions for artistry under communism must come about through class struggle, and art will always play a role in the culture of class struggle, from Courbet to today. When those conditions arise, with digital innovations and collectively owned art spaces like theatres, film studios, and art collections, think about how much more accessible art online and in person could be made. It would be art that is rewarded not through a tech corporation’s algorithm, money, or ruling class preference, but by the will of liberated people.

Published in Sydney Anarco-Communists Bulletin #1.