In Defense of Art History: Against the Neoliberal Imagination

"A lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career. But I can promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree. Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree — I love art history. So I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody. I’m just saying, you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education, as long as you get the skills and training that you need.” — Barack Obama speaking to workers in Wisconsin.

It’s been several weeks since President Barack Obama uttered these awkward words during a speech. But as if to drive the point home, they haven’t completely faded from the headlines. The days afterwards naturally saw a great many lovers of art and history peeved at what the president had said, including some truly accomplished in the field. When Ann Collins Johns — a professor of art history herself at the University of Texas at Austin — wrote an email to Obama expressing her disappointment at his words, Obama surprisingly felt the need to personally respond!

If Obama was hoping to mollify the art-lover crowd, he nonetheless sent the online punditocracy into a full-blown tizzy. The responses here ranged from the snarky to the quizzical to the downright stupid. New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait (the same Jonathan Chait who not long ago called for Laurie Penny to be hit by a taxi) ponied up this idiocy:

The Obama apology tour continues! Basically, any group of people that hates America and gets worked up about it — Europeans, Muslims, art history majors — Obama will apologize to you.

It may have been intended as mere smarmy cheek (however nasty it actually comes off), but it also provided ample cue to the right-wing. Take this assertion from Ed Driscoll, for example:

But do the bulk of art history majors hate America? Or perhaps we should ask the flip-side of the equation: which college majors aren’t being taught to hate the nation?

And no, we have no idea where to even start with that one either.

Obama’s recent statement may have been a small “gaffe,” and the fallout from it ultimately eye-roll inducing. But it does echo the crude opinion of the American ruling class’ most callous ideologues. It’s a line of thinking that can be basically broken down as the following: All that is not of immediate and utilitarian interest to the profit system is to be shunned.

Interestingly, it was not art proper, but art history that Obama mocked. At one level capitalism is full of “art” (with a lowercase “a”). It pours as adverts from trains, highways, televisions, movie theaters, bus stops, the sides of skyscrapers and stadium billboards.

It is not “art,” in a broad sense of people trained in visual signing, that is the problem here. It is the understanding of art. The understanding of context, meaning and human contradiction is that which is mocked.

Obama’s gaffe underlines a conception of education and culture all too common nowadays, and highlights the ongoing onslaught on the humanities and liberal arts. The corporate education model being pushed heavily on public schools, state universities and city colleges — schools that serve students from largely working-class and poor backgrounds — grants little weight to these subjects.

It wasn’t always like this. After World War II there was a mass expansion of higher education. American capital had need of a new generation of professionals and technical managers. The system needed this new layer of skilled workers and middle-managers to be able to think critically. This was far from a utopia for the humanities and liberal arts, but it was nonetheless clear that capitalism needed these disciplines.

Today, neoliberalism demands a flexible semi- and unskilled workforce that can move from job to job as per the needs of globalized capital. Confrontations with faculty unions, increasing use of university adjuncts and part-timers, rising tuition costs and student debt are just some of the most visible manifestations of this attack. The modern economy’s requirement for critical thinking is non-existent. Instead it requires game pieces that can be moved on an ever-changing production board.

  Southern Illinois University faculty strikers and supporters marching in 2011.

Southern Illinois University faculty strikers and supporters marching in 2011.

Certainly, such a system need not be reminded that the game pieces are human. Florida Governor Rick Scott recently mocked the very study of humanity when he asked, “Is it a vital interest to the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”(Of course we all know that the state of Florida has little interest in what it means to be human.)

What is vital to the neoliberal state (not just Florida) is unfettered capital. The humanity, creativity and potential of the state’s citizens are irrelevant beyond perfunctory appeals for votes and consent.

Neoliberal Models of Education and Culture

Obama, since taking office, has led the neoliberal attack on education and culture — most notably promoting former Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education.

While Obama has, in recent years, proposed art funding increases on the federal level — knowing full well the Republican House of Representatives would balk — he has, more often than not, led the way in cutting arts funding. In the 2012 budget Obama proposed a 13 percent reduction in National Endowment for the Arts funding and across-the-board cuts in other federal art and humanities funding. He has also yet to appoint a permanent head to the NEA since its previous chairperson stepped down in 2012.

The emphasis on math and science and the degradation of liberal arts and the humanities is designed for a particular outcome: a small army of technocratic managers on the one hand (the people who design “just-in-time” production and distribution models and create exotic financial instruments) and an army of semi-skilled and unskilled interchangeable low wage workers on the other. The in-between working-class jobs, teachers and nurses for example, are constantly squeezed between the skilled realities of their work and the demands of capital.

Too often would-be defenders of art meet the enemy on the enemy’s terms. For example, Carole Becker, the Dean of Columbia University School of Arts, has argued that art education is a form of creative research that appeals to today’s employers. This is true at one level. Capitalism continues to need specialists (even if it needs less of them). As Mark Graham notes on CounterPunch, a 2011 survey showed that 92 percent of former art majors were employed — just over 40 percent as “professional artists.”

Even Forbes noted that only .02 percent of working-age adults with college degrees had been art history majors, and while working-class and poor students study art history it is a field that tends to draw students from middle and upper-class backgrounds whose studies can be underwritten by the financial security of their families.

Regardless, Becker’s defense of art on neoliberalism’s terms concedes too much ground to the enemy. The problem with the “capitalist realist” attack on the arts and humanities is that it is:

          1.)  It is an attack on the very essence of what it is to be human.

          2.)  It is an attack on human labor itself.

Art with a capital “A”

Art is more than a series of skills that may or may not be of use to the corporate world (where artists become “culture workers” as Theodor Adorno put it).

When we talk about art with a capital “A,” we must reckon with “big” questions. Our present-day Thomas Gradgrinds, referring to Charles Dickens’ humorless cheerleader of industrialization in Hard Times, do not want us to discuss the “big” questions in a meaningful way. (In Hard Times, Gradgrind torments a little girl because, rather impractically, she loves horses.)

In the art-world, the most notable Gradgrinds were the post-modern ideologues, who, like evil fairy-tale wizards, hated “big” questions, stories and narratives.

As Mark Graham argues, “As much as we live in a material world, we also inhabit a symbolic order in which we can’t help but wonder why there’s something instead of nothing, who we really are, and what death means for us. Art may not provide the answers but it gives us an outlet (that science does not) to ask insoluble questions without resorting to the dogmatism of institutional religion.”

“Marcuse argued that it was art that could imagine an alternate reality beyond the one-dimensionality of operationalism,” Graham continues, “and the totalitarian powers it serves. Art is an ‘inner history of the individual’ that serves as a ‘counterforce against aggressive and exploitative socialization.’”

“Jack Kerouac described [art] as ‘the unspeakable visions of the individual.’ [Herbet] Marcuse as a ‘liberating subjectivity.’ [John] Berger as a dissolution of the self and other.”

“Art is an expression of man’s need for a harmonious and complete life,” as Leon Trotsky argued, “his need for those major benefits of which a society of classes has deprived him.”

For the Marxist art critic Ernst Fischer art was a rebellion against being forced to consume ourselves within the confines of our own individual lives. It was art that allowed us to achieve the fullness of existence through multiple viewpoints, narratives and experiences.

We would argue that it is art that allows us to connect the mundane, fantastic and horrible realities of everyday life with the uncharted horizons of an emancipated human imagination.

Whole Foods Market, Jamba Juice, Starbucks, McDonalds and Wal-Mart have no need for this sort of dreaming. In fact, such dreams manifested in their employees are an objective threat to the vulgar rule of Corporate America.

The act of combining this human creative experimentation with knowledge of history is all the more objectionable for the 21st century Gradgrinds.

While art historians are not known as a rowdy proletarian mass, the field of art history represents a large part of what a post-capitalist society would be about: unleashing (and understanding) the collective social genius of the human race.

In this sense art history is, objectively, a beachhead of the future socialist society. It is tolerated in this system as a sort of hobby for bourgeois and petit-bourgeois children. But art history, rooted in the genius of our species’ origins and tracing the arc of social development and class conflict is dangerous.

It remembers — and remembering is the cardinal sin of neoliberal capital. Capitalism is a system of forgetting.

Once upon a time the most favored art of the bourgeois was history painting. For the revolutionary bourgeois history was a weapon. Think of David’s Oath of the Horatii and Death of Marat and the French Revolution. History painting was also a weapon for those who opposed (from an aristocratic, plebeian or disillusioned liberal point of view) the new order. Think of Goya’s Execution of Peasants on the Third of May.

As John Berger argued, history painting eventually became empty and scholastic. As history became the enemy of the new ruling-class, history painting became hagiographic. Artists rebelled against this empty history painting in the 19th century and asserted the essentially modern aspects of art.

  Third of May.

Third of May.

It is time for a rapprochement between the legacies of modernity and history — to bury neoliberalism’s curmudgeonly post-modern cultural ideology.

The Working-Class

In the heyday of post-war American capitalism, millions and millions of people worked in decently paid, unionized manufacturing jobs. Today most of those factories are shells or ruins.

The logic of global capitalism has shifted labor intensive manufacturing abroad and automation has radically reduced the number of workers needed in capital-intensive manufacturing.

Obama’s “gaffe” was not just his disdain for the creative human labor of artists and historians. It was a blatant insult to the labor of the workers he was addressing, who, potentiallymaybemight find decent pay and careers in,maybeperhaps, industry or, maybe, the trades.

It is true that some people will make a decent living at skilled manufacturing, just as some people will make a decent living as an “artist.” But the days in which a skilled manufacturing job provided security and a decent life are gone. Obama is playing a shell game.

Just as neoliberalism has no value for art and history it places no value on human labor (beyond that which economic trends and the class struggle insist it pay in wages). President Obama has overseen the longest stint of sustained underemployment since the Great Depression. The mantra of retraining and education has produced a looming student debt crisis in which the next generation of engineers and artists alike face indentured servitude.

There’s room to speculate that Obama never heard of his fellow Chicagoan, Henry Darger. If he had studied Darger’s work, in an art history class for example, he might have learned this simple truth: artists can be workers, and workers can be artists. Darger, orphaned at an early age took up a custodial position in a Catholic hospital, and throughout his hermitted life, created a series of works that spanned thousands of pages- including tracings, collage, watercolor, and writings.

These works were created without any professional training or guidance. This kind of raw, organic artistic material produced by working or indigent folks is the same material that is shirked into the scrap heap, instead of given the resources it needs to be developed and cultivated. It’s shirked aside because it isn’t profitable, or the kind of “Art” that society’s rulers are interested in propagating.

  Breadline during the Great Depression.

Breadline during the Great Depression.

We cannot solve our problems on an individual basis — as artists, workers, community members or students.

Art and labor have a common enemy.

Revolutionary Imagination

Our website’s new slogan is “rekindling the revolutionary imagination.” Our goal is, in part, to help create a cultural hub for the socialist and radical left to imagine new worlds. Such imagination is needed now more than ever. In the face of spiraling living standards, never-ending wars both covert and out in the open, and the unavoidable specter of climate disaster, our collective dreams have been stunted. The neoliberal imagination is characterized most of all by its lack of vision — its inability to imagine. This “capitalist realism” is one of the things holding us back.

This is the kernel of neoliberal truth in Obama’s gaffe. Do not dream. Go back to work — and maybe, just maybe, your life will be acceptable.

We cannot accept this appalling lack of vision.

While, in the final analysis, it is the material world that shapes us, the “spiritual” aspects of life — art, poetry, film, song — animate us in our very bones.

As Walter Benjamin argued in his work, “On the Concept of History:”

The class struggle, which always remains in view for a historian schooled in Marx, is a struggle for rough and material things, without which there is nothing fine and spiritual. Nevertheless these latter are present in the class struggle as something other than mere booty, which falls to the victor. They are present as confidence, as courage, as humor, as cunning, as steadfastness in this struggle, and they reach far back into the mists of time. They will, every and anon, call every victory which has ever been won by the rulers into question.

Art can turn us, “just as flowers turn their heads toward the sun,” toward an emancipated future.