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11 2006

On the Conditions of Anti-Capitalist Art

Radical Cultural Practices and the Capitalist Art System

Gene Ray


Contemporary social movements include diverse forms of visual communication and experimental cooperation that are broadly recognized as “artistic.”  Inspired by the Zapatistas, who masked their socially invisible indigenous faces to make them politically visible, the activists of Tute Bianche in Italy donned white overalls in the late 1990s to symbolize the enforced precariousness of life under neo-liberalism.  This visual gesture is continued today in Germany by the Überflüssigen (the “unneeded ones”) who perform militant protest actions in hooded red sweatshirts and white theater masks.  The experience of brutal state repression of the massive protests against the G-8 in Genoa in 2001 has led to the deliberate blurring of borders between “politics” and “culture” at large demonstrations as a tactic to deter open police violence; colorful samba bands and local brigades of the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army have recently become familiar features of demos in Europe. 

In the 1980s in Argentina, artists worked with the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo to fill the walls of Buenos Aires with silhouettes remembering those “disappeared” by the military dictatorship that seized power by coup d’état in 1976.  In the 1990s, groups of artist-activists such as Grupo de Arte Callejero (GAC) and Etcetera helped to invent the escrache, a powerful form of “justice from below” in which unpunished perpetrators from the dictatorship were exposed and denounced in large carnival-like protests staged outside their homes.  During the Argentinean insurrection of December 2001, the largest revolt against neo-liberal globalization to date, these same groups were active in the sustained daily protests that brought down the regime of Fernando de la Rua.[i]

Today, beyond the familiar form of organized mass rallies and marches, small groups and networks of Kommunikationsguerillas and politicized cultural pranksters are carrying out daring actions.  Yomango in Spain and Umsonst in Germany are so-called “collective names” under which activists are creatively attempting to revive “proletarian shopping,” the “auto-reduction” of prices, and other practices developed by the Italian Autonomia movement in the 1970s.  Collective names spread from city to city and, like capital itself, cross borders with ease; Yomango now has “franchises” in Chile, Argentina, Mexico, and Germany.  The Yes Men, a small but energetic group inspired by the AIDS activism of ACT-UP, boldly impersonates the talking heads of corporations like Union Carbide or infiltrates the apparatuses of neo-liberal power to wreak parodic havoc.  The tendencies expressed in these examples reflect both the adoption by activists of techniques and practices from “art” and the migration of artists into the “movement of movements.” 

Meanwhile critical and political forms of art are enjoying a revival in major exhibitions and international biennials.  Documenta 11, taking place in 2002 and led by artistic director Okwui Enwezor, turned the gigantic exhibition held every five years in Kassel into a politicized cultural forum for critical and artistic reflection on globalization, unrealized democracy, and the aftermaths of de- and re-colonization in the global South.  “The Interventionists,” a 2004 exhibition mounted by MASS MoCA, featured more than a dozen artist groups known for their highly politicized contestational practices.  In the same year Artforum, the leading international art magazine, saw fit to dedicate all the feature articles of its September issue to “The Art of Politics.”  Do these examples suggest that the art world is becoming politicized by the so-called “war on terror”?  Or is the art market, as cynical as ever, merely taking advantage of global public mood shifts? 

To throw some clarity on the situation, it will help to pose directly the question many artists and activists seem to be investigating.  What are the conditions of possibility for artistic practices that can justly be called “anti-capitalist”?  In order to approach this question, an account of how art now functions within capitalism is needed.  Drawing on now-classic Frankfurt School critiques of artistic autonomy, I will sketch the outlines of the capitalist art system, including its ideology of the artist and its institutions and social functions.  This will make it possible to recognize three possible models for critical and radical cultural practice:  “critically affirmative art,” avant-garde practices, and “nomadic” practices.  Each is based on a different structural relation to the institutionalized capitalist art system and the professionalized identity of “artist” that it reproduces and enforces.  This simple orienting schema goes far to distinguish and clarify the assumptions likely to be held by practitioners occupying the outlined positions as well as the practical options that correspond to them.  While critical practices are possible in all three models, the positions are not equally effective in linking up with social movements and anti-capitalist struggles.  The conclusion here is that only avant-garde and nomadic practices, which are differentiated by the extent to which they break with dominant institutions and conventions, can lead to effectively radical and anti-capitalist practices.

The Capitalist Art System

Despite universal acceptance of something called artistic “modernism” and long debates over the “postmodernism” that threatened to replace it, cultural discourses today still evince a persistent tendency to treat art as an ahistorical category that transcends its social and temporal contexts.  The antidote to this motivated naiveté has of course long been available in the form of Marxist critiques of bourgeois artistic autonomy.  Remarkably, the liberal philosophers who developed the so-called institutional theory of art in the 1960s and 70s largely ignored the powerful accounts developed by Herbert Marcuse, Theodor W. Adorno, and other critical theorists associated with the Institut für Sozialforschung.  To that extent, they remain naïve and demonstrate the risk “analytic philosophy” runs by programmatically blinding itself to history and tradition in order always to start from scratch. 

To the philosophers their due.  Under capitalism art is indeed the “open” concept and expandable category recognized by Morris Weitz.  The category is indeed overseen by institutions, more or less as George Dickie argued.  And Arthur Danto’s term “artworld” is indeed a useful one to denote the totality of these institutions.[ii]  What is missing from the consensual sum of these “uncritical” theories is an account of the relations between art as an institution and the capitalist society to which it belongs.  Digging out the historical specificity of art and its social functions under capitalism was one achievement of the Frankfurt School.  While fragments of such a critique have come down through the Marxist tradition and were augmented by the self-theorizations of Berlin Dada and other avant-gardes of the early twentieth century, the first comprehensive critique of art and its autonomy may be Marcuse’s 1937 essay “The Affirmative Character of Culture.”  Another major contribution to this critique came in the chapter entitled “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” in Max Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, first published in book form in 1947.  Adorno continued to elaborate this notion until his death in 1969.

Taken as a whole, the Frankfurt accounts tell us that art is a social institution that is organized into a system of rules and conventions serving social functions that are largely ideological.  (Art is a branch of “culture,” loosely understood as the sum of what the creative and intellectual activity of a society produces, rather than a tradition that organically grounds the identity and values of specific communities.)  At the core of the capitalist art system, and here the early analyses of Walter Benjamin are seminal, is an ideology of the artist and a set of unwritten but enforced rules that govern both the production and reception of what the Frankfurt theorists called “bourgeois art.”  The ideology operates by locating the values of genius, originality, singularity, and authenticity in the person of the artist-creator, whose works as a result have cultural value that a market readily converts to exchange value.  The signature of the artist, as proof of presence and auratic seal, guarantees the transfer of value to the artwork.

The most important and perhaps in the end the only strictly non-negotiable rule of capitalist art is expressed in the notion of “artistic autonomy.”  In this context autonomy means that art is different from “life” and that this categorical difference will be enforced by the art institutions (art schools, galleries and market, museums, critical and promotional magazines and publications, and so forth).  In some ways, artists enjoy more freedoms of expression than do people in everyday life.  “What counts as utopia, fantasy, and rebellion in the world of fact is allowed in art.”[iii]  But these freedoms can be exercised only so long as the result is clearly marked as “art” and is not confused with “life.”  The autonomy of art, then, is relative and not absolute.  It includes conditions that amount to the enforcement of a social and political powerlessness.  As Adorno would put it:  “Neutralization is the social price of aesthetic autonomy.”[iv] 

Art under capitalism has a historically specific double character:  it denotes an institutionally-constituted realm of limited freedom on the one hand and on the other a mode of luxury commodity production.  Roughly speaking, the first would be the source of art’s use value, the second of its exchange value.  These two aspects, autonomy and market, are irreconcilable and antagonistic.  According to the Frankfurt account the “unity of opposites” achieved by great works of art refuses fraudulent temptations of false reconciliation by remaining tense and divided within itself, in effect reflecting the status of the artwork as a field of conflicting impulses and social forces.  “Art’s double character as both autonomous and fait social is incessantly reproduced on the level of its autonomy.”[v]

Marcuse’s 1937 account traces the ideology of bourgeois culture back to its roots in ancient idealism.  He shows how “the True, the Good, and the Beautiful” in Plato and Aristotle are transformed into a world of universally valid and binding “values” categorically separated from the material world of everyday reality, “yet realizable by every individual by himself ‘from within,’ without any transformation of the state of fact.”[vi]  Here lie the origins of autonomy in idealist bourgeois aesthetics, which culminates in theory in Kant’s doctrine of “disinterestedness” and in practice in “art for art’s sake.”  In social terms, autonomy effectively functions to affirm the given order.  A “realm of apparent unity and apparent freedom was constructed within culture in which the antagonistic relations of existence were supposed to be stabilized and pacified.  Culture affirms and conceals the new conditions of social life.”[vii]  Affirmative culture displaces the demand for happiness and freedom into a realm cut off from life and political praxis, compensating aesthetically for the lack of happiness and freedom in the real world of exploitation and class conflict.  At the same time it captures the desire for change and channels it away from social struggles, thus helping to block desire from developing into practical revolutionary force.

For Adorno this means:  “Artworks are a priori socially culpable.”[viii]  However, their aspect of autonomy can still express resistance within the force field of the individual work.  Artistic expressions of the promise of happiness are, at least negatively, indictments of the lack of happiness in the given.  And for Adorno, if modernist artworks only reflect that promise of happiness by formal rather than representational means, by refusing any false reconciliation of their constituent elements, this is still the form of resistance appropriate to autonomous art.  However, no practical effects follow from this kind of resistance.  As a system, as an institutional totality, culture remains a tool of capitalism and established power.

Horkheimer and Adorno’s notion of culture industry is an attempt to grasp how late capitalist modes of production generated a new twist in the old dialectic of enlightenment and barbarism.  They analyze the rationalized production and circulation of “mass culture” in film, in radio and popular music, and in magazines and pulp fiction, in order to show how this systematic organization of leisure time around the consumption of cultural commodities (Kulturwaren) tends to subvert the autonomy of art.  The products of the culture industry appear to be evidence of the abundance and diversity of contemporary life but in fact enforce a debilitating “sameness” (Ähnlichkeit) on the ideological level.  Mass cultural commodities uniformly inculcate resignation and conformity in those who consume them.  They prepare individuals to accept their social misery as an inescapable fate and thus function to subdue all rebellious and revolutionary impulses.  The escape the culture industry offers “is not, as it claims, escape from bad reality but from the last thought of resisting that reality.”[ix] 

The culture industry is not identical to the capitalist art world, either as a mode of production or in the way it contributes to social control.  But the autonomy of art is not immune to or unaffected by the culture industry’s logic.  What begins as the adaptation of autonomous art into commodities for mass consumption (Mozart or Beethoven into jazz, Balzac or Hugo into film) becomes a systematic and totalizing “demand for the marketability (Verwertbarkeit) of art” that tends toward the “social liquidation of art.”[x]  Horkheimer and Adorno’s sometimes provocatively hyperbolic formulations can lead to readings that mistake this tendency for an accomplished fact.  But a careful reading will find that they hold open the possibility for the continued creation of autonomous works of art, even if these are now fated to debasement in the “bargain-sales” of the circulation sphere.[xi]  It may be increasingly difficult to distinguish precisely where the art world ends and the culture industry begins.  But the tendency to simply conflate the two or conclude that autonomy has been utterly eliminated is to be rejected.

The capitalist art system, then, is a social sub-system of capitalism as a global system of exploitation and control.  I have used Frankfurt School critiques of “bourgeois culture” to sketch the structure, outlines, and functions of this system.  But they could as well have been derived from the work of Pierre Bourdieu.  The important point is that autonomy and the ideology of the artist still form the operative core of the capitalist art system.  The notion of culture industry helps to clarify new pressures on artistic autonomy, but those pressures do not suffice to abolish autonomy.  The institutions and conventions of the capitalist art world still produce an operative relative autonomy, which in turn continues to serve affirmative social functions. 

I note in passing that it will be important to understand how the categories analyzed above may be impacted by recent so-called post-Fordist transformations in the modes of production and exploitation.  An adequate critical articulation of the Frankfurt School account with the Italian Autonomist Marxist theorization of post-Fordism, and especially with Paolo Virno’s suggestive notions of “virtuosity” and “general intellect,” is urgently needed.  Without being able here to produce supporting arguments, I want only to suggest that Virno’s analysis in A Grammar of the Multitude raises many interesting questions but does not appear fundamentally to change anything in the structure of artistic autonomy or the functions of the capitalist art system.[xii]  It would in any case not be difficult to show that the relative autonomy of capitalist art is still functioning under contemporary modes of production.


Three Models for Critical Artistic Practices

The above account of the capitalist art system indicates that artists wanting to politicize their practices and contribute to social struggles are faced structurally with a choice between three possible positions vis-à-vis autonomy and the institutions that produce it.  Artists can accept this autonomy on its own terms and work within the art system.  Or they can reject relative autonomy categorically and relocate their practices beyond the conventions of the art institutions.  Or they can move between these two positions, claiming autonomy or not, working within the institutions or keeping their distance, as need requires or opportunity permits.  Each position yields a model; each has its own logic and practical strategies.

In the first option, artists may not accept every aspect of the bourgeois ideology of the artist, but a choice has been made to bear the professionalized identity of “artist.”  This choice necessarily implies a basic allegiance to the conventions and authority of the art institutions, as well as to the structure and functions of artistic autonomy.  It does not follow, however, that this allegiance must be naïve, uncritical, or unfailingly obedient.  A minimum of conventions must be followed; others can be questioned or transgressed.  Artists can make this minimum their object and attempt to force or provoke, if not a real negotiation then at least a critical reflection of the social functions that lie behind specific conventions or institutions and the politics that follow from them.  This strategy has long been known as “institutional critique.”  While its origins lie in the counter-exhibitions mounted by Gustave Courbet and others in the nineteenth century, this stream of practices really began when Marcel Duchamp pseudonymously submitted a urinal to an “open” exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York in 1917.  In the 1960s and 70s it came into its own, as a strategic approach to be investigated and elaborated, in the exemplary works of Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren, Hans Haacke, and others. 

Generally speaking, the rules and conventions that govern visual representation within the art world are flexible and open to change, reflecting the “open” and expandable concept of art itself under capitalism.  Again, autonomy as an enforceable categorical difference between art and life is the one rule that tolerates no challenge.  This means that visual representations of social struggles or even conceptual and discursive indictments of established power can be brought into galleries and exhibition spaces without questioning the autonomy those spaces institute.  For this reason, anti-capitalist content in artworks is not in and of itself politically effective.  Moreover the non-negotiable rule of autonomy does not exclude forms of protest and direct action aimed at the art institutions and their internal stratifications and composition.  The Guerrilla Art Action Group of the Art Workers’ Coalition and, later, the Guerrilla Girls, are examples of institutional critique become militant.  But these forms acknowledge the authority of the art institutions even as they address their protests to or at them.  As the Frankfurt account suggests, individual autonomous works can still find ways to develop criticality in form or content.  But the structure and function of autonomy within the capitalist art system as a whole makes it clear that all forms of visual and conceptual representation sited within institutionalized exhibition spaces, as well as all practices of institutional critique, must end by affirming the status quo that, for good reasons of its own, indulges this realm of relative freedom.  In other words, the first model is structurally blocked from developing effectively anti-capitalist practices.  These strategies are at best critically affirmative.

The second model was established by the artistic avant-gardes in the early twentieth century:  the groups and networks of Futurists, Dada, Russian Cubo-Futurists, Constructivists, Suprematists, and Surrealists.  With the exception of the Italian Futurists, who notoriously became involved with fascist politics, the other groupings of the historical avant-gardes were made up of radical leftists who, anarchist or Marxist in orientation, can credibly be described as “anti-capitalist.”  Peter Bürger analyzes their practices in his Theory of the Avant-Gardes (1974), the first attempt to produce a fully historicized critical theory of avant-garde strategies.  He shows that these groups attempted to escape the political powerlessness imposed by artistic autonomy by directly integrating their practices into the sphere of everyday life.

Here it is crucial to grasp that this repudiation of autonomy and its neutralizing effects, this attempt to re-link the segregated spheres of art and life, necessarily involved a decisive break with the conventions and institutions of the capitalist art system.  The early avant-gardes were not always entirely clear about this point.  Their breaks with the institutions and conventions of art were not invariably resolute and irreparable.  Sometimes individual practitioners or whole groups returned to the fold after a period of revolt and exile.  It is only with the Situationist International (SI), a group Bürger did not analyze, that the logic and necessity of this break is given theoretical elaboration and becomes fully conscious.  Founded in 1957 but continuing in many respects the project of the Letterist International from which many of its founding members came, the SI was a Paris-based network of mostly-European national “sections” active until its self-dissolution in 1972.

For skeptics who doubt that groupings of determined artists can develop effective forms of intervention and political agency outside the art institutions, the SI is a troublesome counterexample.  These self-defined revolutionary anti-capitalists developed both a theoretical critique of “the society of the spectacle” and practices of “constructing situations” and “decolonizing everyday life.”  Their role in the student uprising and general strike in France in May and June of 1968 is not generally acknowledged by historians or mainstream political analysts.  However, the testimony of some protagonists within the March 22nd Movement indicates that the decade-long circulation of the SI’s ideas and their intensified agitation on campuses beginning with the 1967 scandal at Strasbourg University surrounding the publication of one of their tracts with student union funds cannot be dismissed in the estimation of causal and triggering factors.[xiii]  The history of the SI remains exemplary for any consideration of what politicized artists may be capable of outside the art system.

The avant-garde model also exposes the deficiencies of the Frankfurt School account.  Adorno notoriously held that artistic autonomy is “irrevocable” and that all attempts to instrumentalize art by renouncing its autonomy are therefore “doomed.”[xiv]  Here he has in mind not only the revolts of politicized avant-gardes but also all attempts to enforce an “official art” through fascist, bureaucratic-socialist, or “democratic” forms of “state capitalist” administration.  By 1941 at the latest, Horkheimer and Adorno had concluded that the opening for a revolutionary passage beyond capitalism had closed up and would remain closed far into the foreseeable future.  The combination of these aesthetic and political conclusions produced the pronounced tendencies toward cultural pessimism for which the Frankfurt School is still well known.  I have addressed elsewhere the problem of this cultural pessimism and the theoretical blockages it produces.[xv]  My conclusion is that Adorno’s arguments against the direct expression of political commitment in art specify certain limits of “bourgeois” or capitalist art but do not apply to avant-garde practices that are constituted precisely by the passage beyond such limits.  The weakness of Frankfurt theory here is its unwillingness to think beyond the form of the artwork or opus and to take seriously the possibility of putting pressure on and moving beyond the bourgeois paradigm and its relative autonomy through the invention of new forms and practices. 

Bürger, at least in his 1974 text, takes over both Adorno’s position on artistic autonomy and the Frankfurt School’s cultural pessimism.  Thus he judges the breakouts of the historical avant-gardes to have been a “false sublation” (falsche Aufhebung) of art into life and dismisses the practices of the post-1945 “neo-avant-garde” as a repetition of failure that merely facilitates the recuperation of the historical avant-gardes as art history.[xvi]  The post-1945 practices Bürger considers are not avant-garde practices at all, however.  They belong without exception to what is here called critically affirmative art.  Theory of the Avant-Garde has nothing to say about the SI, or about the abundance of experiments in contestational cooperation, from the Dutch Provos to Kommune I in Berlin to the San Francisco Diggers, that were inspired and enriched by artists who abandoned the art system in the 1960s and 70s.  Nor does it indicate how a different use of these theoretical categories might contribute to the understanding and evaluation of those who try to continue and renew this model today.  In only one sense is Bürger’s judgment unassailable:  such efforts cannot become “true” dialectical overcomings of capitalist art until capitalism itself is overcome through a successful revolutionary passage.  It does not follow, however, that in the absence of revolutionary victory avant-garde practices and interventions are utterly without political effect or cannot contribute to the eventual emergence of new revolutionary situations.[xvii]  The avant-garde model is a still renewable vector of breakout in which the severance of ties to the art system is correctly grasped as the necessary condition for the invention of effective anti-capitalist artistic practices.

The third model is a double-game sited between the alternatives of institutional integration and exile.  Here artists refuse any fundamental investment in autonomy or professional identity that would confine them to the art system and limit their practices to those sanctioned by the art institutions.  But they also refuse to rule out sometimes working under the category of art or participating in the art world.  They reserve the right to make that choice on a case-by-case rather than a once-and-for-all basis.  In this way they secure the highest degree of flexibility and room for maneuver.  They can shuttle back and forth between inside and outside, responding to opportunities, taking advantage of funding sources, and exhibiting work in exhibitions, without having to restrict themselves to the imperatives of an art career.  On the other hand they can invoke artistic autonomy and “spend” the symbolic and cultural capital they accumulate through participation in the art system in order to construct a kind of cover or limited immunity that carries over into the sphere of everyday life.  In certain situations, such cover may gain them more freedom of action and expression or provide a plausible defense against prosecution for politicized actions on the borders of legality.  Moreover the institutionally enforced border dividing art and life is not always clear-cut.  Sometimes it breaks down into more ambiguous border zones, in which this third model is well positioned to operate.

Borrowing a term from artist Mel Chin, who is a pioneer of this double-game, I have in the past called this model “catalytic.”[xviii]  Chin’s collaborations with scientists and his work in the collective Gala Committee in the 1990s attempt to trigger catalytic processes that produce effects across multiple social fields.  While this notion is still helpful, it does not sufficiently acknowledge the social movements that are directly confronting the power produced by these fields and are struggling for their radical transformation.  To recover and foreground this aspect of struggle, it would be better to call this model “nomadic,” after the nomadic “war machines” theorized by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari that are one of its main sources of inspiration.[xix]  The machine concept is a strategy to elude the rigid and “molar” hierarchies of established institutions and state apparatuses – but also to wage anti-systemic struggle.  A machine multiplies the possibilities for contestational communication and cooperation by cutting “transversally” across terrains organized and “striated” by instituted powers.  It produces “lines of flight” that actively and inventively escape constraints and controls in the search for effective weapons for struggle, as well as “rhizomes” or open, distributed networks of cooperation that operate as sources of counter-power.  In the 1990s the reception of these and other so-called post-structuralist notions and concepts evinced tendencies to sever these bodies of theory from their original, and often militant, political contexts, sometimes reducing them to their opposite:  an apologia for resignation and entrepreneurial accommodationism.  However, used as conceptual tools for shifts of perspective, for the continuous self-criticism of organizational forms, and for the discovery of tactical openings within antagonistic situations of struggle, they have great promise.[xx]  From a nomadic view, the art system is merely one of many striated and molar terrains that a nomadic war machine would disruptively cross as it produces oppositional rhizomes and lines of flight.



The three models outlined above set out three possible structural positions for critical artistic practices.  As a simple categorization for preliminary orientation at the often confusing intersections of art and politics, this schema should be helpful to both artistic practitioners seeking to work with activists and activists who may need to know more about the divergent operative assumptions and institutional commitments of “artists.”  From the perspective of anti-systemic social struggles seeking a passage beyond capitalism, the production of critical practices and representations from all three positions is clearly desirable; no source of criticality can be neglected or taken for granted today.  However, with respect to their capacity to develop political efficacy, the outlined models are not equivalent.  Critically affirmative art is well positioned to mount institutional critiques and disseminate politicized artistic representations to art world audiences.  But its relation to artistic autonomy and its position within the capitalist art system ensure that it will not be able to escape its affirmative social functions and develop anti-systemic pressure or agency. 

Only avant-garde and nomadic practices have the potential to become anti-capitalist.  Of the two, the avant-garde model, by virtue of its decisive break with the art system and its resolution to invent radical practices in the sphere of everyday life, is more likely to develop anti-systemic pressure.  Whether such pressure can become revolutionary of course depends on historical conditions that no avant-garde group can determine or control.  Because the logic of this model views the break with institutional support as irreparable, avant-garde practitioners must organize collectively into groups and networks for survival and mutual support as well as for political efficacy.  The break itself is the source of their practical independence and makes their practices relatively resistant to neutralizing re-absorption by the art system.  But their position outside the institutions makes avant-garde practitioners more vulnerable to social and economic exclusion and more exposed to direct political repression.  Thus on grounds of self-preservation as well as affinity, they have great incentive to link up with social movements.

     As for the nomadic model, only those practices actually sited beyond the art system can hope to escape art’s affirmative social functions.  To the extent that nomadic practitioners claim the identity of artist and work within the art institutions, their work outside those institutions will tend to be interpreted as part of an integral artistic oeuvre and, to the same extent, is prepared in advance for re-absorption.  Due in no small part to the advantages it offers in terms of balancing flexibility and security, this third model is probably the most popular one today for artists trying to develop an anti-capitalist practice.  It remains to be seen whether this will continue to be the case as militarized neo-liberalism pushes the capitalist world system further toward a global crisis of legitimacy.



[i] See Brian Holmes, “Remember the Present: Representations of Crisis in Contemporary Argentina,” Université Tangente, on-line at<>; and Ana Longoni, Is Tucumán Still Burning,” Sociedad 1 (2006), on-line at <>.


[ii] Morris Weitz, “Art as an Open Concept: from The Opening Mind”; George Dickie, “The New Institutional Theory of Art”; and Arthur Danto, “The Artistic Enfranchisement of Real Objects: The Artworld”, in George Dickie, Richard Sclafani, and Ronald Roblin, eds., Aesthetics: A Critical Anthology (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989).


[iii] Herbert Marcuse, “Über den affirmativen Charakter der Kultur”[1937], in Schriften 3: Aufsätze aus der Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung 1934-1941 (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1979), p. 210; “The Affirmative Character of Culture,” in Negations: Essays in Critical Theory, trans. Jeremy Shapiro (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), p. 114.


[iv] Theodor W. Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie [1970], eds. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1973), p. 339; Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), p. 228.


[v] Ibid., p. 16/5.


[vi] Marcuse, “Affirmativen Charakter der Kultur,” p. 192; “Affirmative Character of Culture,” p. 95.


[vii] Ibid., p. 193/96.


[viii] Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie, p. 348; Aesthetic Theory, p. 234.


[ix] Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialektik der Aufklärung: Philosophische Fragmente [1947](Frankfurt/Main: Fischer, 1969), p. 153; Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr and trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), p. 116.


[x] Ibid., pp. 166-7/126-7.


[xi] Ibid., pp. 169/129-30, my italics: “Today works of art, suitably packaged like political slogans, are pressed on a reluctant public at reduced prices by the culture industry; they are opened up for popular enjoyment like parks. However, the erosion of their genuine commodity character [i.e., as “the species of commodity which exists in order to be sold yet not for sale” – G.R.] does not mean that they would be abolished in the life of a free society but that the last barrier to their debasement as cultural assets has now been removed.” Cf. Adorno, “Culture Industry Reconsidered,” in Adorno, The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, ed. J.M. Bernstein (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), p. 99, my italics: “The autonomy of works of art, which of course rarely ever predominated in an entirely pure form, and was always permeated by a constellation of effects, is tendentially eliminated by the culture industry, with or without the conscious will of those in control.”


[xii] See Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life, trans. Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito, and Andrea Casson (Los Angeles and New York: Semiotext[e]), especially “Day Two: Labor Action, Intellect,” pp. 47-71.  For the beginnings of the articulation called for, in the context of a discussion of the Internet and post-Fordism, see Gene Ray, “Revolution in the Post-Fordist Revolution?: Notes on the Internet as a Weapon of the Multitude,” Third Text, vol. 21, no. 1, forthcoming.


[xiii] See Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Gabriel Cohn-Bendit, Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative, trans. Arnold Pomerans (Edinburgh, London, and San Francisco: AK Press, 2000), pp. 19, 25-28, 218-222.


[xiv] Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie, p. 9; Aesthetic Theory, p. 1. See also “Engagement” [1962], Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 11; “Commitment” in Notes to Literature, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992).

[xv] Gene Ray, Terror and the Sublime in Art and Critical Theory (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), pp. 12-6, 78; and “Art Schools Burning and Other Songs of Love and War,” Left Curve 30 (2006), p. 93.


[xvi] Peter Bürger, Theorie der Avantgarde (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1974), pp. 72-3; Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), pp. 53-4.


[xvii] For a more elaborated statement of this argument see Henrik Lebuhn and Gene Ray, “Kunst-Kritik-Politik. Über die Grenzen und Möglichkeiten anti-kapitalistischer Kunst,” Analyse & Kritik 508 (18 August 2006), pp. 30-1; and Ray, “Avant-Gardes as Anti-Capitalist Vector,” Third Text, vol. 21, no. 3, forthcoming.


[xviii] Ray, “Another (Art) World Is Possible: Theorizing Oppositional Convergence,” Third Text 71, vol. 18, no. 6 (November 2004): 565-72.


[xix] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia [1980], trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).


[xx] For a convincing deployment of these concepts in the context of an extended theorization of the forms of revolutionary art practice, see Gerald Raunig, Kunst und Revolution: Künstlerischer Aktivismus im langen 20. Jahrhundert (Wien: Turia+Kant, 2005); Art and Revolution: Tranversal Activism, Monsters, and Machines, trans. Aileen Derieg, forthcoming.