OftA: A Short Comment on the Social Pathologies of Art

I’ve done quite a lot of work on aesthetics and philosophy of art over the last few years, though as usual, not much of it has been written up and published anywhere of note. This piece is another short response to an article in The New Inquiry, and it displays both a sympathy and frustration with a certain critiques of the art world that are rather common. There’s plenty of references to my review of Sinead Murphy’s The Art Kettle below, but I’ve since refined my views on the relation between art and its institutions and art and its practices.


I just finished reading Rob Horning’s piece in the New Inquiry on ‘Creative Tyranny’, discussing Ben Davis’ new essay collection, and I am in two minds about it.

On the one hand, I’m in agreement with many of the claims he makes about the relationship between both the artworld as a whole and capitalism, and individual artists and anti-capitalist political movements. This is best summed up as follows:

But because artists are celebrated by capital for their seeming independence from it, they are liable to become confused about the social role they play. They think being above wage labor gives them automatic solidarity with those who want to abolish it. They think they are fellow travelers when really they are running dogs.

This fits reasonably well with Sinead Murphy’s diagnosis of the pathologies of contemporary art in her book The Art Kettle, which I’ve written a review of that will be coming out in the next issue Pli.

On the other hand, I think the conclusions he draws from these relationships are far too extreme, to the point of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The baby in this case is the very notion of artistic value (which I’d, perhaps controversially, simply call Beauty), understood to involve distinctions between what is more and less valuable, and the bathwater is the way the art world has managed to pervert the institutional form of expertise in this domain so as to suppress the exercise (and valorisation) of creativity within everyday practice in favour of a rarefied form of creative expression amenable to the interests of capital (in more ways that one). To quote Horning:

But it’s impossible to say artworks are “great” without also implying that those who can see that objective greatness are in a superior aesthetic position to those preoccupied with consumer junk. In wanting to preserve the traditional transcendental quality of art, Davis is arguing for the very same rarefied aura that critics and collectors and museums and art schools and all the other art-world ­institutions have always counted on and used as an alibi.

I think he is correct in noting that the problematic social functions of the art world are dependent upon making these sorts of normative distinctions, but that much strikes me as fairly obvious. Moreover, the suggestion that such normative distinctions must be presented as ‘objective’ in order to function is at best misguided, and at worst setting up a straw man. Regardless, it is used to paint a picture in which such distinctions are inherently oppressive:

Yet if artistic ability is unequally distributed by nature, that fact alone will generate an unequal society as long as art is singled out for special cultural significance. Art is so complicit in structuring cultural hierarchies, it makes more sense to argue that art’s value never precedes the existence of those deformities and to agitate for a world where art is granted no alienable “value” at all.

As he concludes:

We can start by rejecting the need to identify “great” art and the class victors it nominates. When art is finally worthless, it will be free for everyone to make and enjoy.

This strikes me as both theoretically lazy and culturally disastrous.

To start with, this seems to fall foul of the very fetishisation of creativity characteristic of the social pathologies of art. There could be no meaningful reintegration of creativity into everyday practice (what Murphy calls craft) that did not include a proliferation of normative distinctions, or an increased consciousness of better and worse capable of guiding creative experimentation (what Murphy calls taste). Put differently, talk of innovation in isolation from talk of improvement is pointless.

Next, the striving for improvement within the various domains of practice leads naturally to a concern with variations in skill, the formation of expertise, and the division of labour. This implies inequality of a kind, but it’s not clear that this inequality is inherently unjust. The idea that differentiation of social roles of any kind amounts to the institution of oppression is far too simplistic to support any positive account of societal structure. This is to say that it is a completely abstract notion of equality that thereby ignores the concrete task posed by the notion of Justice.

The question is then why can’t artistic expertise and artistic institutions form a functional part of this division of labour? It’s clear that the current art world is obviously pathological when compared to this role, but it seems that these pathologies should be understood as deviations from the ideal role of art, rather than posited as inherent to it. Horning seems to hold that the mere suggestion that there could be such an ideal role reinforces these pathologies, without actually considering what it could possibly be. On this view, art as such becomes a social aberration, rather than merely the current configuration of it as an institution.

There is something to be said about how this inability to conceive of a positive social role of art is connected to the art world’s paradoxically reflexive obsession with defining itself through calling itself into question. However, this is something that warrants its own post. The important point is that we needn’t see contemporary art’s monopolisation of creativity as something inherent to the institution, but as a perversion of a specific form of creativity that should define it. We should be able to have creative innovation within the various domains of human practical endeavour, and creative innovation that is in some sense unbound by any of those domains, without the latter suppressing the former. We should be able to strive for greatness in all of our cultural endeavours, including the creation of beauty for its own sake. A just society must encourage such greatness, rather than suppressing it.

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