9.5 Theses: Conclusions – Chapters Fifteen and Sixteen

Temporary Art Review is pleased to announce a new column on our site: BOOK CLUB.

For the first edition of BOOK CLUB we will review Ben Davis’s 9.5 Theses on Art and Class. Starting in October, a new post will be published every two weeks focused on each section of the book. For each section, Temporary contributors will initiate a discussion through the comments in the post and anyone may continue the discussion by contributing their own comments and observations on the text.



About the Book
In 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, Ben Davis takes on a broad array of contemporary art’s most persistent debates: How does creative labor fit into the economy? Is art merging with fashion and entertainment? What can we expect from political art? Davis argues that returning class to the center of discussion can play a vital role in tackling the challenges that visual art faces today, including the biggest challenge of all—how to maintain faith in art itself in a dysfunctional world.

9.5 Theses on Art and Class may be purchased directly from the nonprofit publisher Haymarket Books, a project of the Center for Economic Research and Social Change.

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BOOK CLUB Schedule
October 7: Art and Class – Chapters One and Two
October 21: Art and Politics – Chapters Three, Four and Five
November 4: Art and Its Audiences – Chapters Six, Seven and Eight
November 18: Art and Its Audiences – Chapters Nine and Ten
December 2: Art and Theory – Chapters Eleven through Fourteen
December 16: Conclusions – Chapters Fifteen and Sixteen

We look forward to the discussions!


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  1. Sarrita Hunn

    Before going into a discussion about this final 9.5 Theses section I want to propose that we also take this final post to consider the discussions that we have had online here throughout the book and consider what questions remain. Looking through the past comments I have noted the following questions:

    How do we move beyond asking “what art is”? Or defining ‘art as activism’ and/or Activist Art?

    How can a discussion of art and class include the broader base of art workers?

    What is role of gift-giving/generosity?

    Can small acts of collectivity have the same, or broader, long term effects has broad-scale political organizing? What role can personal (political) transformation play?

    Who gets to be an ‘artist’?

    How does the intersection of race, class, and gender further complicate things in an age where white women and gay white men of higher social classes are frequently put forward as harbingers of greater inclusivity and increasingly multi-racial global audiences become disinvested in art?

    How are we to articulate criticism’s goals today?

    What questions do you find remain?

    • James McAnally

      Re: your question about how to move beyond art-as-activisim and how to broaden the discussion of art and class to art workers, I think there is an acute overlap between the two as they relate to the political consciousness of artists. Regardless of one’s position as an “activist artist,” every artist should be aware of the structures of the art world that one participates in and perpetuates, how one’s individual decisions compose and contest it, and the community of people who are affected by it (whether other artists, art workers, etc). Davis’s classification of artists as middle class due to our (partial) autonomy is important because it returns us to the idea that we have choices in every sphere of our work – not always ideal choices, but some control is within our hands and this separates artist from the “art worker.”

      It is this simple activism that is what I think most of us could agree on. I personally may advocate for a merging of art and activism (in terms Davis refutes throughout the book), but do not think that is the primary function of art or why most artists do or should create in the first place. As Netta commented, part of the relationship of art and activism is that artists are uniquely equipped to enact social and political change. As autonomous workers who must consider themselves and their publics, a unique confluence of critical awareness and action means that artists are almost always in the center of social change, so the relationship between art and activism is a central factor when talking about either art or activism.

  2. Netta Sadovsky

    Davis concludes 9.5 Theses with overall impressions and advice regarding the relationship between politics and art, and how art may change if the world changes.

    Ch. 15: Beyond the Art World posits two facets of what it means to judge something as an artwork.

    #1: HORIZONTAL. You compare the work to a history of art and current conventions in art.
    #2: VERTICAL. You compare the work to the world as it exists at the time the work was made; how choices in the artwork link up to qualities of its contemporary audience.

    Davis contemns the horizontal model as relatively uninteresting. The vertical model, on the bright side, puts the “history back into art history” and demands that the artwork be relevant to the social world it is a part of. Good artwork has political qualities in so far as it plays off of political realities with a contemporary voice.

    Davis also reacts against the horizontal model by encouraging artists to transcend the pressures and values of the art world. “When you have learned its terms and then learned not to care about it, you have achieved a kind of state of grace, and that is where good art begins.”

    What did others think of this charge? Are “art world” concerns best learned and left alone?

    Ch. 16: To the Future opens with a disturbing story of Davis’ encounter with a man taken by police and accused of trespassing at the Miami Basel art fair. He’d held up signs reading “Art Needs a Home,” “Homelessness is a Condition, not a Disease,” and “Hungry not Starving.” (The man, F. Geoffrey Johnson, then produced his ticket to the fair, but was told his signs counted as art and he would be arrested if he returned.)

    The rest of the chapter assesses how we can think of art produced under our specific political conditions. Davis estranges the reader from contemporary American capitalism by pointing out its bizarre imbalances:
    -“America is now the developed world’s capital of social stagnation,”
    -“we incarcerate a number of people to rival the Gulag at the height of Stalin’s madness, while above the rocky landscapes of foreign lands, we deploy robot planes to terrorize hapless populations—as if the ambition of our leaders is to turn the present into an approximation of some cautionary sci-fi dystopia.”
    -“our profit-mad economic system will shortly convert the planet’s surface into an unlivable wasteland, left to its own devices”

    As a result, Davis explains, we are witnessing the moment before an inevitable crashing of capitalism. Incidentally, it’s an exciting opening for visual artists to help enact change from their unique economical position.

    In the present moment, artists are faced with corporations usurping their innovations and upper class interests defining their practices. Consequently, artists main mission according to Davis is maintaining the myth of the artist’s status as middle-class and creatively autonomous. Despite the depressingly delusional and ego-centric condition of the surviving artist, there’s an upshot: the artist must be heroic to maintain their identity, yet another characteristic that lends itself well to enacting political change.

    At this point, Davis gives several examples of artist-influenced political movements, like Stuart Davis (relation unknown) support of labor struggles in the 30s through the Artists’ Union and Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro’s Womanhouse, an influencial component of the feminist art movement in the 70s.

    Davis ends the examples on a quote from John Berger, reacting to those who would accuse Marxism of celebrating the “intrusion” of politics into art. Berger says, “On the contrary, we protest against the intrusion. The intrusion is most marked in times of crisis and great suffering… [those times] must be understood so that they can be ended: art and men will then be freer.”

    The book ends with a dreamier and dreamier sequence about art after capitalism, when we will look back at art made now with the historical goggles with which we look at Jesus and Mary paintings from back in the day. Capitalism gone and freedom acquired, art will be reflective of a new present, “more interesting than anything we can now even imagine.”

    What did others make of this art after capitalism fantasy?

    For my part, I got an implication that there will be some future in which further freedoms are not imaginable: we all have all the freedoms, humans and animals alike. This seemed outrageous. Also, perhaps it is my unconscious elitism rearing its ugly head but it seems unlikely that great art will some time no longer be rare and precious.

    A response to one of Sarrita’s questions, of how to define artist as activist:
    The message I left the book with is that despite the fact that art is importantly not political, and in fact politics must allow art to be separate, artists are especially well-equipped to enact political change. That artists have an ethical responsibility to recognize the lack of political efficacy of art as a medium, and so not to consider their art sufficient as a form of political participation.

  3. joel bresolin

    concerns arise from anxiety: 1. activism? what you decide to do on a daily/hourly basis, 2. what is art? only of concern for artists, critics, collectors, institutions not for “the masses”, 3. what to do if one is invested by choice or circumstance into this paradigm? have your experience, become a manifestation/ incarnation of it, one must act in some way, your actions or inactions are your “art”, then you’re gone. 4. history? a mediated narrative, inclusion arbitrary based on fabricated/perceived social need/agenda, 5. Money: time/space/ materials/promotion all cost, mythology of disinterested free creativity, more likely again/ highly mediated production not separate from the agenda of institutions/ interest groups. Perhaps all propaganda? Ultimate value determined by philosophers, a higher power, or the dump.

  4. Sarrita Hunn

    A Guidebook of Alternative Nows, ed. Amber Hickey
    34 visionary creative thinkers and makers contributed to this book which illuminates ways of devising more socially, economically, and ecologically just versions of now. (free download)

    The Parallel Economy of the Commons by Jonathan Rowe

    Expensive cities are killing creativity by Sarah Kendzior
    “But creative people should not fear failure. Creative people should fear the prescribed path to success – its narrowness, its specificity, its reliance on wealth and elite approval. When success is a stranglehold, true freedom is failure. The freedom to fail is the freedom to innovate, to experiment, to challenge.”

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