THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by Diane Thodos
The representation of private interests... abolishes all natural and spiritual distinctions by enthroning in their stead the immoral, irrational and soulless abstraction of a particular material object and a particular consciousness which is slavishly subordinated to this object.
— Karl Marx1
Money is the alienated essence of man's labor and life; and this alien essence dominates him as he worships it.
— Karl Marx2
In the 20th Century you can track almost every decade with a great art movement… Now we get to the 21st century and what’s the great art movement?... There isn’t one except if you say the art market.
— Josh Baer, art advisor3
In 2015, the Illinois hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin bought Willem de Kooning’s 1955 painting Interchange for $300 million and paid $200 million for Jackson Pollock’s 1948 painting Number 17A. In the words of Larry Fink, the chairman of the world’s largest asset manager, BlackRock, “The two greatest stores of wealth internationally today is contemporary art…[and] apartments in Manhattan… Vancouver, and London.”4
Such astronomical sums for art challenge whatever the imagination could have possibly conceived back in 1973 during the auction of the Ethel and Robert Scull collection of contemporary art. 50 contemporary artworks were sold for the then unheard-of sum of $2.2 million. It was a moment that signaled the beginning of the end of art values—social, human, historic, traditional, existential, aesthetic—and the rise of art as an instrument of finance held in corporate holdings, tax freeports, bank vaults, and private collections. What has led to the collapse of the existential, aesthetic, social, and humanistic point of art to the pure transactional power of money? What exactly is the neoliberal economic ideology that arose in the Reagan era which has led to this state of affairs 40 years later? Has neoliberal ideology disrupted natural human social and relationships to such a degree that creating an authentic art praxis can no longer be coherently conceived? Have recent social movements signaled the possibility that some alternative to its control and power may be on the horizon?
To begin, I would like to look back to a time before the onset of neoliberalism in order to consider the critical factors that allowed for the development of the abstract expressionist movement in the United States from the 1930s to the early 1950s. This was predominantly before the major artists of this movement had gained any kind of market recognition or national status.
First, the abstract expressionist artists were deeply influenced by many major modern European artists who had fled WWII and the Nazis to settle in New York City. They brought a rich consciousness of the modernist movements they participated in, including the recent surrealist invention of automatism. Automatism unleashed the dynamism of the unconscious mind, which would be fused with the power of gesture. This had a tremendous impact on Pollock, de Kooning, Franz Kline, Lee Krasner, and Robert Motherwell, among many others. The Marxist-leaning writers Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, both of whom wrote for left-wing Partisan Review, became serious intellectual supporters of the movement. Their embrace of a Marxist-inspired critique of culture invited a new kind of interpretive depth and intellectual rigor to art writing and criticism. Having a skill-based formal art training was crucial to working through the influences of the modern masters. de Kooning could draw with the precision of Ingres while also absorbing the influences of Picasso, Matisse, Soutine, and Gorky. Pollock was a student of Thomas Hart Benton and the surrealist printmaker Stanley William Hayter while also engaging the influences of Picasso and the Mexican muralists José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros.
Willem de Kooning, Untitled, 1950. Black enamel paint on off-white wove paper. © 2018 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.
But most significant of all was the establishment of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and its employment of thousands of artists from 1935-1943 as part of FDR’s New Deal program to put unemployed people back to work and have the government pay for it. The New Deal was based on a new economic model established by British economist John Maynard Keynes, a bold experiment in resuscitating the economy following the onset of the Great Depression. Historians Jonathan Burgos and Netty Ismail describe its dramatic importance to the national art scene:
Its impact upon de Kooning and many other artists was incalculable. For the first time, American artists came together in substantial numbers, able to devote their full energies to art. By 1936, more than six thousand artists had joined the project. It was a scholarship for all. As Herzl Emanuel described it, ‘It was a period of tremendous discovery for people who had had no break in life up to that point.’ With the artists’ newfound unity came a sense of confidence, possibility, and empowerment. Until that time… ‘there wasn’t any art world’… There wasn’t any café life. There wasn’t any center to go to.5
Willem de Kooning vividly recalls the critical effect the WPA had on him:
The Project was terribly important. It gave us enough to live on and we could paint what we wanted. It was terrific largely because of its director, Burgoyne Diller. I had to resign after a year because I was an alien, but even in that short time, I changed my attitude toward being an artist. Instead of doing odd jobs and painting on the side, I painted and did odd jobs on the side.6
The WPA jump-started a unique cultural moment in United States. For the first time, artists were able to organically create their own self-generating, self-supporting, and self-influencing networks—in other words, create a “center.” The many informal gatherings they had in studios, bars, and cafes resulted in the formation of “The Club,” which regularly met for many historically important and spirited discussions about art and culture.
Abstract expressionism depended on these critical elements: the democratic socialist economic reforms of the New Deal, having a skill-based education, and historical modernist art engagement with modernist and Marxist-inspired artists and intellects, along with the social interdependence of living artists generating their own dynamic social praxis.
A sale of impressionist and modern art at Sotheby’s New York salesroom in May 2019. Photo courtesy of Sotheby's.
Today stands in stark contrast with the degree to which all these important social, political, and economic factors have been swept away. The mid-1980s brought about a new, radical, ideologically driven form of capitalism broadly enacted by the policies of U.S. president Ronald Reagan and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Known as neoliberals, the believers in this system sought to dismantle all the New Deal economic and social reforms. It was an assault on the redistribution of wealth that the New Deal had established, attacking progressive taxation, corporate regulation, Social Security, affordable healthcare and housing, and strong labor unions, to name only a few of its victims. American political theorist and author Wendy Brown explains what happened:
Combined with globalization, neoliberalism has eviscerated the fabric of social life, produced mounting economic insecurity… Neoliberalism is essentially a form of governing that sees democracy as an obstacle, at best, or as an illegitimate intervention into the rule of the market, at worst. For neoliberalism, rule by markets is understood as a form of governance that should be applied everywhere, not just to marketed goods, but to education, prisons, the organization of state, and so on. So neoliberalism treats popular sovereignty, or decisions based on human agreement and deliberation, as inappropriate interference with the efficient market and the price mechanism.7
The ideological basis for neoliberalism went much further than previous kinds of capitalism by commodifying all aspects of contemporary life, not only in the economy but in ALL social, political, cultural, and psychological spheres as well. The most important feature of neoliberal ideology was the abolition of the idea that society and human relationships exist. Thatcher said it best: “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” Thatcher’s endlessly repeated slogan, “There is no alternative,” laid out the iron rule that a market economy, and no other, is the only one that works:
…[Neoliberalism disseminates] the idea that your task is to enhance your value, keep it from depreciating, and do this at every level, from your social media profile to your resume, to the particular things you volunteer for, to your particular networks… The enterprenurialization [of the self] is an earlier phase; then we get the finanacialization of the self… you then start to get the move to present and brand yourself such that you attract investors in that self... It’s not about literally having a financial portfolio, it’s about treating yourself as if you were one.8
Margaret Thatcher implicitly understood this when she said, “Economics are the method, but the object is to change the heart and soul.” The subject was to be molded, produced, and reproduced by ideological indoctrination. These demands to “financialize” oneself, to be alienated from one’s real self—to displace the real self with a market-based self in hyper competition with all other selves—have resulted in the nihilism and destruction of a functioning democratic society, which is all too apparent in the age of Trump. “Atomization,” says scholar Henry Giroux, “fueled by a fervor for unbridled individualism produces a pathological disdain for community, public values and the public good.”9 People treat each other as objects—bits of capital to be exploited—and not “subjects” as you would have in a participatory democratic system. Indeed, art has been supremely de-subjectified and objectified in the same way that people have been. This is reflected as much by auction house prices as by the degree to which artists are eager to embrace the neoliberal “branding” and marketing of themselves.
U.S. President Ronald Reagan with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the United kingdom in the Oval Office, 1988. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.
All this explains why art today is judged by a single criterion—its financial value—and no other. Art critic and scholar Donald Kuspit’s seminal 2007 Artnet essay “Art Values or Money Values” sums up this state of affairs:
Many years ago Meyer Schapiro argued that there was a radical difference between art's spiritual value and its commercial value. He warned against the nihilistic effect of collapsing their difference. I will argue that today, in the public mind, and perhaps in the unconscious of many artists, there is no difference. The commercial value of art has usurped its spiritual value, indeed, seems to determine it. Art's esthetic, cognitive, emotional and moral value—its value for the dialectical varieties of critical consciousness—has been subsumed by the value of money.10
The power of this ideological transformation is demonstrated by the degree to which artists themselves are complicit in their own dehumanization:
Art's willingness, even eagerness to be absorbed by money—to estheticize money, as it were—suggests that art, like every other enterprise, from the cultural to the technological (and culture has become an extension and even mode of technological practice in many quarters) is a way of making and worshipping money—a way of affirming capitalism. Indeed, it is a way of signaling the triumph of capitalism over socialism, that is, the unimpeded pursuit of money and profit at the cost of the common human good that might be achieved by the re-distribution of capitalist-generated wealth…
You may say that money values have nothing to do with art values. But art prices not only impinge on them, but imply there is no need for independent evaluation of art. Any independent consciousness of art misses the capitalist point that it… has become a form of equity—estheticized equity, but equity before it is esthetic…11
Since Kuspit’s essay was written 13 years ago, the financialization of art has become even more extreme. A de Kooning painting sold at auction in 2006 for $27 million. In 2019, a similar one sold for $200 million—more than 11 times the price. It is a sign that the monetization and financialization of art has become complete. Whatever assessment there is of the significant meaning in de Kooning's work—its innovative merger of modernist influences, skillful draughtsmanship, and expressive existential power—has all been reduced to pure commodity, which is appalling. All creativity and intention, all richness and experience, are steamrolled by the money power, turning art into a dead object.
Neoliberalism’s dictum that “there is no alternative”—so richly evident in our politics as much as it is in the art world—has driven both into a rigid kind of stasis where mobility is not possible. Essentially, art world institutional adherence to neoliberal-based market systems has “frozen” the art world in time. Since the mid-1980s, the art market has continually increased the asset values of the same group of high commodity-valued artists. Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons are typical examples. They have been chosen as the “market winners” by those who stand to profit most by such choices, which is why their increasing asset value is preserved and sustained by the same high commodity value dealers and their high commodity value-purchasing ultra-wealthy clients. In similar fashion, the billionaires and corporations of today—America’s 1% oligarchy—have “rigged” the economic system to always serve the same expediency of neoliberal market purposes for those at the top of the economic ladder, guaranteeing either no mobility or downward mobility for the middle and lower classes.
Neoliberalism’s purpose is to dehumanize the human subject in the same way it dehumanizes what is considered to be art. In a previous article I wrote for the New Art Examiner’s Jan/Feb 2018 issue, “How Neoliberal Economics Impacted Art Education,” I discussed how conceptual art, minimalism, and pop art conformed best to neoliberal market demands, with Duchamp, Warhol, and Keith Haring as the most successful models. The often anti-art, anti-aesthetic, and anti-human basis of their work accords perfectly with the neoliberal belief in the atomized self and mass culture. This extends to Koons’ pop culture kitsch for the rich as much as it does to the deskilled Readymade, ripe for instant “sensationalized” market appeal: Maurizio Cattelan’s banana taped to a wall, Félix González-Torres’ pile of candy and string of light bulbs, and Damien Hirst’s animal vitrines and diamond skull. These Readymades emphatically prove that the very nihilism behind neoliberal ideology—of reducing art to this most alienated and dehumanized form—can be successfully packaged and monetized.
Neoliberalism also reformulates modernist abstraction as “decorative” market-ready design, as is so evident in the vast quantities of “Zombie Formalism” or “crapstraction” on view. There is no need to work through the subjective or spiritual struggles with abstraction that Kandinsky, Mondrian, Rothko, or Barnett Newman went through in the search for meaningful new forms. One need only appropriate their signature styles to sell pleasing designs that hang in corporate halls and on apartment walls.
A critical component of the neoliberal ideological formula is to promote art that conforms to mass entertainment and spectacle—a perfect fit for a model based on the atomization of its audience and the commercial market supremacy of its values. This is why sensationalism and novelty are rigorously applied as formulas for generating a mill of new markets and sales for over 40 years now. Like the never-ending stream of commerce in fashion, art depends on quickly cycling through endless modes of novelty and entertainment to keep its market engine going, swapping what was formerly a culture-engaged audience for a mass-based one.
It is significant that neoliberalism has led to profound ahistoricism about art—even going so far as to be anti-historical, anti-intellectual, and anti-interpretive. This is necessary because neoliberal ideology demands the erasure of all consciousness of alternative ways culture, society and politics had existed previously and may be conceived of in the future. True critical, historical, social, and cultural consciousness poses one the gravest of threats to neoliberalism’s order precisely because it has the power to dismantle its dictum, “There is no alternative.” Donald Kuspit’s recent 2019 essay “Thinking About Art and the Art Critic’s Situation” talks about this problem
One needs ideas to think about art—certainly to be able to interpret and evaluate it with critical acumen and, more broadly, to educate one’s sensibility, enabling one to attune to it responsibly.… No one can be a responsible art critic—let alone properly responsive to a work of art—without knowledge of the history of ideas, the history of art and culture, and some understanding of human psychology… [C]ritical consciousness does not spontaneously spring from one’s head the way Athena sprang from the head of Zeus, but must be deliberately cultivated—and constantly renewed…
Now, on a practical level, it is hard to write art criticism, especially art criticism that explores art in depth, and that reaches a large public, typically by way of art magazines…
The contemporary critic is thus in a dubious position, not to say dire situation: his critical consciousness—the knowledge and sensitivity he can bring to bear on the art—is constrained by the demands of the market, at least if he wants to get a hearing from ‘the people who count,’ the people in power in the art world, often enough the people with money… the Midas touch of superrich collectors turns it [art] into spiritless, lifeless gold. The Midas touch is self-defeating, for it devalues art by absurdly overvaluing it…
[C]ritical consciousness is on the verge of being stamped out by economic consciousness..12
Abolishing the past and denying there is no alternative for the future means we are forced to be stuck in an eternal present. Mass entertainment demands attention to a never-ending present: the next program in the serial, the next major league football game, the next blockbuster movie, or the next new art “sensation.”
There is also the incessant skewing and revising of historical significance tailored to the prominence of an artworks’ financialized value. Art that has passed the “market” test makes it into art history books and magazines—revising the history of contemporary art to be a history of markets. The erasure of historical consciousness is necessary to maintain the neoliberal “spell” of ever-escalating auction prices, which in turn establish the meaning of money values in the writing of contemporary art history. “There is no alternative,” like a shaman’s chant, guarantees endlessly escalating value for de Kooning paintings as much as it does for Manhattan apartments and corporate stock buybacks. For the 1%, the illusion of art’s commodity value cannot be allowed to fail, the spell must not be broken, the security of their wealth holdings must be guaranteed because “there is no alternative” to the eternal present.
Yet the most damaging aspect of the neoliberal economic model—one that led to the subverting of all the aforementioned human values—is its full-frontal attack on the existence of alternative economic systems. This includes censoring consciousness and historical knowledge about Keynesian, socialist, democratic socialist, or communist economic systems as they existed in the past. This has allowed financial elites to continually attacked and dismantle the New Deal reforms on which the vast majority still depend. They vilified the New Deal as “Stalinist authoritarianism” in 1937 in precisely the same way that the right-wing media does today. It is precisely because of the great success of the New Deal to redistribute wealth, creating the largest and most wealthy middle class in the history of the world, that its memory remains the greatest threat to the neoliberal order.
Any remnant of the human, social and political factors critical to the formation of the abstract expressionist movement 80 years ago have been severely diminished if not outright destroyed by neoliberalism’s order—in particular, its social democratic economic foundation through the New Deal and its rich social networks with European expatriates, writers, and critics Greenberg and Rosenberg, as well as historically engaged art curators and dealers like Katharine Kuh and Betty Parsons, who were willing to believe in an art that had little monetary value and no market when they supported it.
The abolition of all these elements, and their displacement with a system based on atomization and alienation, is what I believe is really is meant when scholars and writers talk about the “end of art.”
Fortunately, today we are finally experiencing social uprisings and organic forms of spontaneous organizing that militate against the nihilism and despair of 40 years of neoliberalism. Wendy Brown describes the two critical elements neoliberalism attempted to destroy and which current social movements are reasserting in the public sphere:
[We] have eliminated two important things… We’ve eliminated the domain where we actually live together in a world… But we’ve also eliminated the space where thinkers like Marx and like other social theorists of equality and inequality identify the powers that subject some groups, elevate others, exclude or marginalize. We have eliminated from our view the very space where racism, sexism and of course class operate.13
The COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic collapse has, more than anything, proven society does exist and that we do live together. Our mutual dependence on each other is critical to our survival in the face of a society and government that have been appropriated by neoliberal market forces. The crisis has shown that people will react and fight back if they are forced to live as atomized cogs in a vast market system that casts them aside when their “asset value” becomes negligible. Social organizing, rent strikes, workers strikes, mutual aid, and massive protest movements are all proof that in spite of 40 years of brainwashing, society still exists. The most important and historic social movement of our time is the Black Lives Matter protest movement—an organic and spontaneous uprising that formed in reaction to racist police murders and rampant inequality. Now the existence of the “social” reasserts itself as a powerful force, shown by the interracial solidarity between whites and people of color.
Neoliberalism’s attempt to erase historical consciousness is starting to lose its hold. Bernie Sander’s runs for the presidency based on a democratic socialist platform in 2016 and 2020 organized an active movement educated in progressive and socialist history. Activists are determined to dismantle the neoliberal order—to de-commodify the criminal justice system, policing, healthcare, housing, education, and the environment. Now there is talk of universal basic income, Medicare-For-All, canceling student debt, free public universities and colleges, and a Green New Deal jobs program, all of which threaten to break neoliberalism’s authoritarian “spell.” While the ever-escalating stock market, Mitch McConnell, and billionaires cry out, “There is no alternative,” millions in the streets yell, “Another world is possible!” ■
Diane Thodos is an artist and art critic who lives in Evanston, Illinois. She is the recipient of a Pollock-Krasner Grant in 2002 and is a student of Jackson Pollock’s teacher, Stanley William Hayter. Her art has been exhibited and collected internationally in museums and galleries in New York, Germany, France, Mexico, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee. Her work is most deeply informed by the Modernist art movements of German expressionism and American abstract expressionism. For more information visit www.dianethodos.com.
1. Karl Marx, “On the Thefts of Wood,” in Rheinische Zeitung, 1842
2. Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production, 1867
3. Josh Baer, The Art Market (in Four Parts): Patrons, Atrsy Vimeo, https://vimeo.com/169040492
4. Jonathan Burgos and Netty Ismail, “New York Apartments, Art Top Gold as Stores for Wealth, Says Fink,” Bloomberg, April 21, 2015
5. Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, 2004, p. 131
7. “Ruins of Neoliberalism with Wendy Brown,” interview, thedigradio.com, Dec 7, 2020
9. Henry Giroux, “Donald Trump and the Plague of Atomization in the Neoliberal Age,” billmoyers.com, Aug 12, 2016
10. Donald Kuspit, “Art Values or Money Values,” artnet.com, Feb. 2007
12. Donald Kuspit “On Thinking About Art and the Critic’s Situation,” whitehotmagazine.com, Aug. 2019
13. “Ruins of Neoliberalism with Wendy Brown,” interview, thedigradio.com, Dec. 7, 2020
Willem de Kooning in his studio. Photo source: Wikipedia.
Sojourner Truth in WPA mural with artist Norman Carton, 1941. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.
Willem de Kooning's Interchange, 1955, sold for $300 million in 2015. Photo source : Wikipedia.org.
Barnett Newman. Untitled 3, 1950. Through prior gift of Mr. and Mrs. Carter H. Harrison. © 2018 Barnett Newman Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Jeff Koons, Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Dr. J Silver Series), 1985. Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Mark Rothko (Marcus Rothkowitz). Untitled (Purple, White, and Red), 1953. Gift of Sigmund E. Edelstone. © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Jackson Pollock. Untitled, 1944-45, printed 1967. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Eugene V. Thaw in honor of Harold Joachim's 60th birthday. © 2018 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.
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