Ben Davis isn’t the kind of Marxist found in English departments—someone who mixes a “strange form of vaguely concerned liberalism…with a radically complex vocabulary,” as the New York–based art critic writes in his new book, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class. Nor does he subscribe to “bizarro-world Cold War beliefs” that romanticize Cuba and the former Soviet Union.
To Davis, whose collection of recent essays examines the art world through the lens of Marxism, that much-maligned ideology merely involves acknowledging that class struggle “has shaped society,” that capitalism’s “profit-seeking and greed” has unpleasant consequences, and that giving those “who do most of the work…a democratic say in how it is done and how its profits are distributed” makes more sense. Some pieces in the book are new; others are heavily revised versions of the Artinfo executive editor’s writings for online publications, exhibition catalogues or—in the case of the titular (95) theses—the door of Winkleman Gallery in New York.
When I first encountered Davis’s writing several years ago, at Artnet, I was struck by its lucidity. 9.5 Theses on Art and Class is almost jargon free, but it’s not an easy read: It’s sometimes a little dry, and it mocks our assumption that—despite numerous oligarch collectors, snobby dealers, narcissistic trustees and Koch Brothers to the contrary—those who support culture and the arts are the good guys.
Davis’s book is at its best when it explores the origins of that assumption—as well as the belief, possibly just as naïve, that art will bring about political change. One chilling anecdote revisits “Gloria,” Allora & Calzadilla’s exhibition of an overturned military tank at the 2011 Venice Biennale’s U.S. Pavilion. Davis characterizes the State Department’s authorization of this seemingly antiwar installation as an example of “smart power,” which made the U.S. look tolerant to foreigners without threatening the status quo.
Artists will only bring about real change if they organize and address injustice head on, according to Davis, who has also spent the last several years as an activist, advocating against the Iraq War and the death penalty, and on behalf of immigrants and gay rights. But 9.5 Theses on Art and Class identifies a problem with its own advice: Artists are disinclined to organize because they belong to the middle class, not the revolutionary proletariat. They may feel as broke and expendable as members of the working class, but they cannot strike, and they do control the conditions of their artistic labor—if not the four extra jobs they hold to support it.
I wish 9.5 Theses on Art and Class included more examples of artists engaging politics successfully after the WPA, because it’s rather bleak, despite Davis’s frequent protestations of optimism. But the book’s analysis of how capitalism divides artists from their allies in the struggle makes it a valuable wake-up call.
Ben Davis speaks about 9.5 Theses on Art and Class Saturday, June 29 at Socialism 2013 (socialismconference.org), held at the Crowne Plaza Hotel & Conference Center–Chicago O’Hare.