Why Artists Ought to Endorse Parecon
Readers of this site, I will assume, are familiar with Michael Albert’s and Robin Hahnel’s critique of capitalism and the social structure they offer as an alternative called a participatory economy or parecon. There is one constituency that seems to have a pretty a hard time with a parecon. That constituency is artists. Albert reports that artists have had a “reflexive initial tendency to reject a parecon.” “Something deep seems to be threatened,” he continues, “and they respond with vigor.”
Well, I’m an artist, a painter, and I endorse a parecon. On the other hand, I can see why artists might find a parecon off putting on first reading. What artists do for work, generally speaking, does not really seem to fit into a world described by concepts such as production, remuneration, participatory allocation, and social output.
I shall argue, however, that the secret to what makes artists tick is the secret to what would make a parecon a winnable, revolutionary alternative. The benefit that artists would enjoy is that a parecon would offer a reasonable escape qua artists from an economy that increasingly requires that they adopt instrumental work routines that fully compromise what it means to be an artist in the first place. Or more succinctly, a parecon would enable artists to be artists more readily and easily, apart from inhabiting a better world. In other words, each camp needs the other. This is what I intend to show.
I shall do this by drawing a contrast between cultures of work that are what we might call activities of expression and work cultures that are typically understood as activities of production. My argument is that in a just society, there would never be a category of workers called artists, just as there would never be a category of workers called maids. Maids cannot exist apart from the nature and conditions of their work. The same is true of artists. The difference is that while we wish to abolish work conditions that give rise to maids, it would make sense to universalize access to the conditions of work that give rise to artists.
The Work Life of Artists
Life is not about finding yourself or finding anything. Life is about creating yourself.
When it comes to traditional economic activity, artists are square pegs in round holes. This is not due to the fact that they are special and deserve exemptions from the strictures of work normally considered. Rather I like to think it is because artists have access to work processes that are post-revolutionary. Below I sketch the work lives of eight artists which shall serve as the basis for points I shall make further on. So let’s have a look. You’ll see what I mean.
1. This artist is a woman writer. She writes while lying on a made-up bed. She has with her a bottle of sherry, an ashtray, and a bible. She reads the bible to get a sense of rhythm in language. She reads it to make contact with melody so that melody may infuse her mind and body. She says when asked if she had been nervous reading her poem at Clinton’s inauguration, “No. I was inside the poem.” Her name is Maya Angelou.
2. This artist is a male actor. He is taken by the way a child, seemingly possessed, can be captured by a leaf, compelled to look at it for a long time. He says he wants what that child has. And if in his work, he isn’t captured in similar ways, he believes that he’s “in danger of, in some small way, kind of dying.” His name is Gabriel Byrne, nominated for many Tony, Golden Globe, and Emmy awards, and listed as the 17th best actor in all of Irish history.
3. Our third artist is a musician. He says that “All a musician can do is to get closer to the sources of nature, and so feel that he is in communion with the natural laws.” Thinking about the payoff, he adds, “The real risk is not changing. I have to feel that I’m after something. If I make money, fine. But I’d rather be striving. It’s the striving, man, it’s that I want.” His name was John Coltrane.
4. The fourth artist was a male painter. Once, when he was a young man, his friends became concerned when they hadn’t seen him for a month. When he reappeared, he was asked where he had been. His response: “I’ve been walking around looking at clouds.” His name was Renoir.
5. This male artist was a musician. So involved in the process of writing music was he that he often left music he had written scattered about his house, as he would simply move on to the writing of the next piece that interested him. One day, his students gathered up some of the music that he had abandoned, set him down, and performed the music for him. After hearing this music he said, “My that’s lovely. Who wrote it?” His name was Franz Schubert.
6. One male painter’s explanation of how he worked through a painting was not dissimilar to Schubert’s process. While thinking about a work he has just begun, he said “I’m treading very gently….If it were possible, I would leave it as it is….[and carry] it to a more advanced state on another canvas (my emphasis). Then I would do the same thing with that one. There would never be a ‘finished’ canvas, but just the different ‘states’ of a single painting. ….because I am searching for spontaneity, and when I have expressed a thing with a degree of happiness I no longer have the courage to add anything at all….” His name was Picasso
7. A seventh person, also a painter, revealed a rather odd belief: “People think a sugar bowl has no physiognomy or soul. But…you have to take them, cajole them, those little fellows. These glasses, these dishes, they talk among themselves. They whisper interminable secrets….Fruits…love to have their portraits painted. They…apologize for changing color….They come to you with all their aromas and tell you about the fields that they left….Objects penetrate one another. They never cease to be alive. Do you understand?” His name was Cézanne.
8. Finally, an eighth artist, a woman and a political painter and sculptor who lived through both world wars in Germany. She suffered greatly and her work expressed the suffering of ordinary people. She was quite clear about what it was that was fundamental to her life as an artist: “Where do I stand? I too want to be free of everything thing that hinders my real self. I want to develop myself, that is to unfold, to pull myself out of the state of suffering and come to a clear sense of my own powers. The process is like a photographic plate which lies in the developer: the picture gradually becomes recognizable and emerges more and more from the mist.” Her name was Kæthe Kollwitz.
I think we can agree that the list of artists exhibiting these kinds of concerns and habits could easily expand from eight to eight hundred. Each in their own way seems to be following Baudelaire’s admonition to artists: “You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it—it’s the only way….But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.”
Degrees of Empowerment
I do not literally paint that table, but the emotion it produces upon me.
So what shall we take away from these observations?
One takeaway is that the conventional way of making for artists – think of Renoir’s need to wander about looking at clouds – is not an activity of production. In fact, Robert Henri, a painter hired by Emma Goldman at her Modern School in NYC explained it this way: the point of painting is not to make a picture but the “attainment of a state of being…a more than ordinary moment of existence.” The art object, should it result, is but a trace, a “by-product” of those extraordinary moments, that sense of feeling larger and more alive. The conventional way of making for artists, we may say, is an activity of expression.
Also, it is important to note that Coltrane, Picasso, and Angelou are telling us that the music, the painting, and the book could not possibility have been known prior to the “attaining of a state of being.” Notions of where each artist was going were shadowy when they began. Space had to be given to spontaneity. Working for a wage, or to sell, or to meet some measure external to the process of expression would be instrumental and would necessarily subvert the workers’ unfettered freedom to “commune with nature” and, on good days, give life to objects or experiences the happen along the way.
It is a mistake, then, to distinguish the artist from the non-artists by reference to the product that results from their labor, by saying for example, this person is an artist because she makes paintings and another person is a non-artist because she does accounting. The making of art has less to do with some mysterious quality called talent or some set of virtues that accrue to the people we now call artists, impressive as those virtues may be, than it does with the nature or structure of the laboring process, what I am calling an activity of non-instrumental expression, that they have access to.
If what I am saying is valid, namely that workers having access to non-instrumental work are privileged then the concept of participation needs to be broadened to include universal access to non-instrumental, expressive work. It is also true that non-instrumental work, by definition, must be free from direction, whether that direction is from a boss or a democratically organized workers council. The activity of expression is a process of unfolding or becoming or striving – or however one may characterize the process of an individual, by giving expression to an inner voice, becomes manifest in the presence of something which is otherwise inaccessible.
The reader may be wondering, is the emphasis on non-instrumental expressive work really important as a kind of revolutionary praxis or is it simply bourgeoisie, flakey individualism that ought to be discarded? Let’s see.
Why Work as and Activity of Expressive Is Important
When we invented cubism we had no intention whatever of inventing cubism. We wanted simply to express what was in us.
Readers of this site are probably familiar with Chomsky’s reference to Adam Smith’s critique of the class divisions that are now central to all capitalist production: ‘Smith’s driving motives,” states Chomsky, “were the assumption that people were guided by sympathy and feelings of solidarity and the need for control of their own work, much like other Enlightenment and early Romantic thinkers.” I’m not sure whom Chomsky has in mind when he refers to “other Enlightenment thinkers” but I think it is pretty safe to say that early Romantic thinkers, primarily German, were those thinkers who were in revolt against the mainstream of Enlightenment thinking. Charles Taylor characterizes this revolt as the “expressivist turn.”
Remember, the entire Enlightenment movement turned on the development of a new modern way of living in the world in which Europeans, for the first time, would have to define themselves as opposed to being defined in terms of a larger, sacralized, enchanted order. “God was dead.” The social order was giving way to a commercial order and an empiricism or way of knowing where people mapped the regularities of nature mathematically. Nature, and people within nature, given this dominant Enlightenment view, were, as Taylor points out, “the locus of neutral contingent correlation.” Or to put it another way, nature objectified was nature without intrinsic value. Yes, reason was displacing The Word but it was a reason that required an instrumental rationality: the control of nature was not an end it itself; it was a means of accumulation in a burgeoning industrial capitalism. There was no better confirmation of man as a creature capable of self-definition than his mastery of the universe. This particular confirmation, then, of human beings capable of self-definition, notes Taylor, was a celebration of the social order, later decried by Max Weber’s as disenchanted, that is, entirely desacralized, mechanized, and atomistic.
Now we are able to properly locate “early Romantic thinkers,” to whom we are indebted, like Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, Baudelaire, Marcuse, Goethe, Adorno, and others whose unrelenting hostility to the objectification of nature and the Cartesian “mutilation of man” has created space for liberation theories, solidarity, not to mention visions of a classless society. Take 18th century German philosopher, Johann Gottfried Herder. His critique was directed against (again Taylor) the “objectification of human nature, against the analysis of the human mind into different faculties, of man into body and soul, against a calculative notion of reason, divorced from feeling and will….” And why? Because Herder believed that “human activity and human life are seen as expressions.” And with this notion of self-realization through the expression of inward feelings evoked by our contact with nature, a revolutionary shift unfolds in the 18th and 19th centuries. The processes of self-awareness or self-feeling provides a quite different confirmation of what it means to be a people capable of self-definition.
But there is another dimension of doing work that has an expressive dimension. Quoting Taylor, we are not only beings capable of “self-articulation,” we are individuals “different and original” and because “we can’t know our deep nature in advance, [but] only as we do it,” we have an “obligation to live up to our originality (emphasis added).” Access to non-instrumental, expressive work, then, not only permits one to realize their humanity, but it does so on a personal level, to know their specific originality. Coltrane prioritizes “striving” over “making money” because it is the “spiritual expression of what I am…my being.” This is why the processes of artists described above is important. These processes are what make us human and they breathe life into individual distinction and originality. “Expressive individuation,” states Taylor, “has become one of the cornerstones of modern cultures.”
The strength of a parecon, in my opinion, turns on its embrace of empowerment. A parecon, therefore, can not only build upon the cornerstone outlined above by accommodating the work practices of artists, it can expand those privileges to all workers. But there is another way it behooves artists to view a parecon and that as in response to crisis.
All the structures, values, feelings of the whole European tradition…suits me fine if that’s all down the drain.
The crisis that confronts me as a painter, working in a western tradition, can easily be explained by contrasting the 20th century with the 19th century in terms of what painters were about. In the 19th century, painters challenged power with an eye toward changing what we would call the social relations of production. So for example, during successive revolutionary periods in France (1789, 1830, 1840), as Gonzalo J. Sanchez reports, artist assembles spontaneously arose demanding “radical change in the organization of artistic life” (education, patronage, and production), not wanting to “sacrifice artistic freedom for the sake of serving the emperor’s self-glorificaton scheme.” The “last and greatest” of these assembles, a 400 strong Federation of artists, emerged within the Paris Commune in 1871. Among their concerns was establishing a “collective approach” to the new institutional impact of the “free market.” It was a precursor to a parecon.
Despite the absolute crushing of the Commune, one group did emerge to win a new art economy. Modeled on a Paris Commune bakers union and with “statues…[drawn] up with the crucial assistance of four of the central figures of the Federation,” a new group of painters emerged. Initially called the Intransigents, they challenged the stranglehold by the aristocracy over art education and the all-important career-making exhibitions of the Salon de Paris by launching a series of exhibitions independent of the Salon. In was by means of these independent exhibitions, intended to achieve “a direct relation with the public,” that the Intransigents (soon to be known as Impressionists) enjoyed absolute control over their art making and democratic control over their “social output.” They emphasized “sincerity,” painting under “the influence of the moment,” “expressing inner sensations,” and especially “audacity” which meant not only disobedience but the belief that a career could be had not by working with the Salon but by challenging it. Cézanne, to cite one example of the fierce independence that marked the participants in this movement, told one agent who had urged Cézanne to change the color of a boat: “Go fuck yourself.” The Salon de Paris, steadily displaced by independent exhibitions, by 1890, never was to recover its prestige or authority.
The story of 20th century artists presents a very different picture. Sadly, the independent artist had jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. The proliferation of independent exhibitions provided an opportunity for private gallerists and agents to seize control of the relation between painters and the public. This, in turn, fueled frenzied speculation, the success of which “stunned even professionals,” according to Alice Goldfarb Marquis. And so the co-optation of visual art system began.
If the “shock” of genuinely rebellious painters successfully challenging power was part of the calculation of high prices, erstaz shock could easily be manufactured by means of scandal or “shock of the new.” If audacious independent artists like go-fuck-yourself-Cézanne were not malleable, artists willing to ride the modern wave succès de scandale were all too available. There is no better better example of type of artists than Marcel DuChamp, the “dada of DADA.” Utterly bored with painting and contemptuous of the democratization of artistic life, not to mention “the taking of art seriously,” DuChamp focused his energies on collaborating with wealthy collectors. Thus he was able to forever change the art game with his introduction of the “ready made:” two famous examples of which were an ordinary urinal in one exhibition and a snow shovel in another. “To persuade buyers…that this was not just nameless junk, a history and a philosophy had to be invented,” wrote Goldfarb, and so the age of gibberish Manifesto-ism was born.
“Duchamp opened the door,” wrote Goldfarb, “to art featuring feces, urine, and other bodily fluids; to art based on junk recovered from the city dump; to art involving cadavers and maggots; and to art with aggressively sexual themes.” Art rebels of the 19th century shocked the people in power while the art rebels the 20th century shocked the public.
The takeaway here is that the shift in focus early on in the 20th century was from process to product, from challenging power to collaboration with power, from success as in unfolding or striving to success as a market actor. By the 1940s, painters were all too happy to work with numerous capitalists backed galleries and museums (primarily MOMA NYC which was created by the Rockefeller family) and the CIA (secretly directing the full range of art promotion activities in western Europe and the US for 17 years), in developing an American art movement in NYC that became known as Abstract Expressionism (AE). AE would lend a cultural gloss to the center of American finance and manufacturing and augment the claim of a superior American freedom during the Cold War. In exchange for a modicum of artistic freedom and a whole lot of promotion, AE artists accepted the stipulation that their work would have to be totally abstract, that is, “politically silent,” and free from any European influences. Nelson Rockefeller called the work of Abstract Expressionists, “free enterprise painting.”
By the 1960s, artists would become capitalists themselves. Following in the footsteps of DuChamp, many artists abandoned making paintings altogether and the making of art generally by themselves. The would became “executive artists” and direct assistants in studio-factories. Andy Warhol explained: “making money is art” and “somebody should be able to do all my paintings for me.” Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist, Carl Andre, Robert Morris, are a few of the many artists of the period that adopted the model of the studio as factory and executive artist as boss. “Its what all the [art] world will soon become,” noted Roy Lichtenstein. That was sixty years ago.
Fast forward to the present. “The entanglement with big money…has become a curse on how art is made and controlled….And this curse has infected the entire art world,” wrote Robert Hughes in 2009. “Important” visual art is all about speculation. It is all investment driven. Peter Phillips informs us that the concentration of wealth has become so enormous that the “transnational capitalist class” has “over-accumulated” and has run out of “safe investment opportunities.” What is left is “risky financial speculation, wars and war preparation,…the privatization of public institutions….and militarized police states.” It should come as no surprise that the art system now provides speculators an option. The Carlyle Group and Morgan Stanley and other wealth managers offer their clients art assets. But for these assets to be safe, work such as Koon’s 90 million dollar Rabbit or Damien Hirst’s stuffed shark (which has decomposed and replaced several times), auction houses must be unregulated, museums corrupted, and the academy, not manifestos, must be used to persuade investors that their purchases will provide greater returns than other real assets in perpetuity.
The crisis I have described is not about bad actors. It is about power and institutions. It can only be addressed properly by facing the real conditions of our institutional life as artists. It is toward a parecon that we look for solutions.
Parecon: Final Considerations
A Balanced Job Complex
Michael Albert writes, “Artistic labor in a parecon –painting, sculpting, designing, writing, filming, directing, performing, dancing, conducting, etc.–will be subject to the same structural impositions as all other labor in a parecon. On one level I agree. All human beings ought to be treated equally. And I think it is reasonable that in a just society every one shares in the onerous, disempowering work. I don’t think that is the major stumbling block for artists. But what I hope my remarks above have made clear is that the mode of work that makes artists possible is fundamental different from labor generally. What I am trying to illuminate is that non-instrumental activities of expression – getting lost in staring at a leaf which Byrne believes keeps in alive or being drunk with poetry and virtue as Baudelaire suggests, is importantly different than instrumental work – building a house, making a cake, in the key respect that the former is what makes us human while the latter, while necessary, does not permit the kind of fulfillment that is at the heart of the Romantic revolt or at the heart of Marxis liberation theory largely because it does not speak to the need of individuals to enjoy unfettered, spontaneous, expression that is original to each of them. (I will address concerns about individualism below).
Given Albert’s and Hahnel’s embrace of the concept of empowerment as well as balance in job complexes, it would seem to me that it would be a small adjustment to make access to periods of non-instrumental expressive activity available to all parecon participants. There are no artists as such, just structured work spaces that encourage self-realization.
The two remaining structural categories of a parecon are Remuneration and Participatory Planning. I put them under the heading of Conundra because I don’t think the work experience central to non-instrumental, expressive activity fits easily into these categories as defined. While the values that undergird these structures are acceptable, some adjustment seems to be required to accommodate the distinctions I’ve outlined.
Remueration is currently based on “how long you work, how hard you work, and the onerousness of the conditions under which you work.” This is problematic for people engaged in non-instrumental, expressive activity. Consider someone in the mold of Coltrane who is disciplined and rather obsessed with striving. Suddenly one’s work is both full of torment and full of joy. It would be easy to demonstrate that many of the most well known and respected artists are half the time ready to slit their throats and destroy what they have made. While at other times, we find them complaining that they do not have enough time to work. The process of becoming turns on a destroying of self as much as it does on self-realization. As Henri described the process, “The drudgery that kills is not half the work that joy is.”
Further complicating the evaluation, one’s self-realization goes on indefinitely, as Picasso intimates. Leonard Berstein stated that “we know from his notebooks that over an eight year period, Beethoven wrote down at least fourteen versions of the melody that opens the 2nd movement” of the 9th symphony. Bernstein characterizes this process, for Beethoven, as a “gigantic struggle.” Onerous work or joyful fulfillment – or both?
As we have seen, the artists involved in the Paris Commune were fearful of the emerging “free market” and with good reason as I have summarized. The market has turned major international exhibitions into über-haute bourgeois freak shows. And given the capture of the visual art system by speculators, blind obedience has replaced sincerity as a virtue all the while surviving as a painter who responds to affective nature, without compromise, has become nearly impossible. Hence the art form’s decline and transformation into what Donald Kuspit calls “post art,” and I would add, made by “post artists.”
Markets are a problem and I applaud Albert and Hahnel in exploring and suggesting alternatives. When they ask, however, “what is impossible about a social, iterative, planning procedure in which workers and consumers propose and revise their own activities in light of increasingly accurate information about what is efficient and what is fair?” – I am reminded by Picasso’s quip that one “does not begin making love to a woman by measuring her arm.” My experience is that people who want to fork over cash for a two dimensional canvas to hang on their wall do it because when they are standing in front of the thing – not reading it – but tasting it with their eyes, feeling it in their gut, wanting it because for them it is necessary to have in their home so that they can be moved by it day after day, never done looking at because it is alive.
Consider it this way. A great painting is no different than a concert involving John Coltrane and Miles Davis. You sit 15 feet away. The music goes through you. It makes reference to nothing. It is alive. Your experience in hearing the music is not unlike the experience of the musicians making it. Now suppose there is a perfect recording of the experience. That’s it. Forever, just one. And one and only one for other similar musical performances. How do you allocate single, one of a kind musical experiences? People who love jazz need to hear and feel particular performances before preferring one over the other. It’s personal. It would be odd of me to order up a song in advance and impossible to plan on making one. The virtue of art making is that while I’m in the process I don’t know where it is going or what I may do in any particular moment. It’s spontaneous for the maker of music as it is for the person who is carried away by it. One must have to hear it to want it.
Paintings are like that. Visual music. Each one is unique. Now, I realize that I can make a proposal about the allocation of my work. But I fear it will resemble a limited, regulated market that does not permit speculation but does permit spontaneity and individual, personal choices in the moment of the experience. I’m not a factory. I produce no more than 80, no less than 50 good paintings a year, especially given my other obligations within a balanced job complex – nor would I want to. I agree with the authors that system wide-dependence on markets for the means of life – a market society – is unacceptable. But as I said above, allocation for my “social output” is for me a conundrum.
Celebration of Self
Celebration of self is a risk for sure, particularly in today’s contemporary cultural and economic environment that is itself a celebration self-interest. Thus the self that begins to feel larger finds no exit or escape from the flat, atomized, instrumental and stifling role requirements in which she is implicated. Perpetual indignity at work is not seen as such. It is just work. Solidarity has no purchase. In this context, opening to closeted inner feelings, is more likely, paraphrasing Taylor, to drown the individual in a sea of self-indulgent sentimentalism, detached from benevolence and solidarity.
But the reverse is also risky. A near total emphasis on social value and solidarity could deny the individual’s inner voice, by pushing it to the darkest corner of social consciousness. Then we risk losing contact with our inner voice altogether. This would be unfortunate. For example, James Baldwin said that he had discovered what “history had made of him” when he was jailed in Paris with North Africans. What he learned was that he was a distinct individual, not for being black, but for being powerful. Clearly, we would want a parecon to support the coming to actuality of a being capable of self-articulation. Baldwin’s mastery of articulating his inner voice was his mode of access to his own sense of power. Marx believed, we have to emancipate ourselves before we emancipate others. Individuals finding fulfillment through self-realization at the same time they are social beings embedded with the institutional structure of a parecon, I would argue, is consistent with Marx’s sense of emancipation.
The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.
The negativity that artists feel to a parecon initially, lies in part, I would argue, in that many of the terms used to describe economic activity are terms in which economists in the hegemonic culture use to understands themselves. Further, in rightly condemning the dominant order, advocates of a parecon stay clear of language that makes contact with a hollow and empty spiritualism, for good reason. But terms that Einstein uses above are especially powerful when they are appropriate, and in describing the riches that a parecon has to offer they absolutely appropriate. So for example, borrowing from Einstein again, we may regard the building of a parecon not “as a duty, but as the enviable opportunity to learn to know the liberating influence of beauty in the realm of the spirit for your own personal joy and to the profit of the community to which your later work belongs.”
My point is not a semantic one. I’m not suggesting that Albert and Hahnel hire a wordsmith to drop in New Age language here and there. Rather, the risk is that advocates of a parecon become unwitting prisoners of the an established conceptual schema that is not as inviting as it might be. Simple terms that ordinary people use in describing life experiences that mark temporary escapes or passages from a dreary, flat, atomized life ought to be employed. These would be terms that are part of the conversation that Eduardo Galeano once said he was interested in pursuing, namely, “the conversation between justice and beauty” – or joy, or magic, wonder, enchantment, mystery, becoming, striving, – terms artists use all the time.
I remember once hearing a professor saying, many years ago, “If you’re not talking institutions, you’re not talking politics.” This is the essential virtue of Albert’s and Hahnel’s vision: it provides not just an alternative but an institutional path forward. The parts are all there. The primary problem I’ve addressed is the unnecessary collision of one community, that of artists, and words on a printed page. But this is due, I think, not to substance so much as due to the complexity of self-understandisgs and language. Joan Cocks wrote, in reference to women’s groups sorting out their differences decades ago: “However militantly its prejudices of thought may announce themselves to the world, there is something naturally fluid and restless about them so that the very act of capturing them on the page does them a certain injury.” I think that is part of the problem here and will be again and again with other constituencies.
The marriage of artists with advocates of a parecon is likely. Both revitalize the other’s spheres as I mentioned at the start. But my larger point is that all participants as artists will be able to make a parecon perpetually fresh and regenerative.