I review the reviews of Ben Davis's important book from 2013, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class.

"It is no surprise, then, that for Davis the notion of the "art world" is a morally questionable and false construction since it serves to obfuscate class relations that permeate its supposed boundaries. Davis helps us understand how people that live, work, and think in the art world are quite possibly engaging in the milieu most deeply informed by demarcations of class boundaries. Consider that one’s intellectual engagement with modern art is in almost all cases somehow traceable to a discourse that emanated from the "ivory tower" where a disinterested class of persons are able to dedicate time to contemplating the subtle brushstrokes of Matisse in a world removed from the realities of economic subjugation. Davis knows this and uses it as direct call to action, a radical action involving our re-valuation of creativity. To separate out "art" as the coded, historically contingent ideology and "art" as broader concept."

Full piece here

AuthorMike Pepi


A part of Gillick’s “accusation” is that the artist is the perfect “knowledge worker.” This has important implications for a question central to Marxist aesthetics. Some recent discussion about the artist’s class position (see Davis, 9.5 Theses) have focused on their entrepreneurial nature—that their personal fulfillment and their professional fulfillment have significant overlap. Gillick, too, contests partly that the “accusation” is that artists offer little to no alternatives to the neo-liberal model of entrepreneurship. Artists “communicate and behave in the same manner as those who spend their days trying to capitalize every moment and exchange of everyday life.” Resulting “moments of stress and collapse” in their practice are a natural outgrowth of the resistance to a possible “realm of permanently unrewarding work.” Gillick seems to advocate not for expression in art but instead for a contextual “breakdown of the barriers between work, life, and art.” He reminds us that the fact that "it is superficially hard to determine observable differences between the daily routines and operations of a new knowledge worker and an artist is precisely because art functions in a close parallel track to the structures that is critiquing.” 

Maybe we all missed Davis' point? Artists were thinking about their relationship in the capacity of players in a material scenario. The book elicits this reaction. He wants us (including artists) to explore the transgressions of the sphere. Davis asserts that the

industry is fucked up, but we need to think of ways to move beyond it. On the other hand, it’s a place that does have seeds of a political discussion, and you can’t begin to think of alternatives unless you can actually talk constructively about the actual milieu that [artists] find themselves engaged with.”

This leads us to a material theory of the artists as producer. I had trouble with this due to its de-historicized approach. Here Mike Kelley’s essay on his impression of Tetsumi Kudo and Joseph Beuys reveal an entirely different lens to the discussion of artists in society: 

"It seemed to me that [Tetsumi Kudo and Joseph Beuys] shared certain characteristics; their actions took place in gallery spaces or the street and not in theatres, nightclubs, or other traditional performance venues; sculptures and objects were manipulated live, bringing a theatrical slant to the practice of sculpture; and both artists were dandies of sorts, adopting a mode of dress that immediately set them in clear opposition to their audience. In the case of Beuys, this consisted of a costume skin to hunter’s garb accented with a fedora; for his part, Kudo often shaved his head and dressed in fluorescent green, sporting pop plastic sunglasses of the same color. What these costumes signified I did not know, but it seemed clear that their purpose was to position these artists overtly in the tradition of the performer. I appreciated this negation of the image of the artists as “everyman”, as exemplified in the often-published photos of Jackson Pollock painting in his studio dressed in work clothes. In opposition to this symbolic refusal of the special role of the artists in society (they are “workers” like any other), Kudo and Beuys, like clowns, visually set themselves at odds with normal behavior. Though I did not necessarily feel the need to position myself in one camp or the other relative to the politics of the artists’ fashion, I was curious about how, and why, exactly these two artists tackled the issue. For me, as an American who understood that artists, clearly, were not thought of as being productive members of society, this kind of self-presentation as culturally “other” made perfect sense. The artist was, inherently, closer to the fetishized position of the performer than to the daily laborer."
-Mike Kelley


Why put artists in a class based on their relations as producers? It is only recently that artists produced work in a field with a robust and open market for it. Artist’s classlessness has its intellectual birth after Modernism. The debate over artists’ class only arises after the appearance of the market for living artists and the concomitant challenges to the academy’s ability to temper taste and production. Unless we unpack this from the start, parts of Davis’ formulations regarding artists’ relations to activist politics are the forced manifesto of a de-historicized worldview dominated by a concern for direct, effective action.


AuthorMike Pepi