Art and Society, or, Gramsci Goes to Williamsburg
Let’s talk about change and sacrifice for a minute.
The above quotation in Gramsci’s prison notebooks (Q6§29, trans. Buttigieg) is from a memoir by Giuseppe Prezzolini which, though published in 1925, describes with remarkable aptness a fundamental problem that is evident today no less among self-described “artists” than among graduate students in the humanities, namely, a profound blindness to the completely synthetic relation between a given form of activity or personal expression and a given economic function in a particular social formation. “Intellectuals should understand,” Prezzolini concludes, “that the good old days for these interesting masquerades are over. Before long, one will not be allowed to be smitten by literature or to remain useless.”
As is often the case with the objects of my diatribes, the problem boils down to a blurring of the line between an action and an identity. The production of “art” - writing a novel, playing the piano, dancing - is a form of individual or collective activity. Being an “artist” - or a novelist, or a dancer, or a college professor - is a social identity.
Now, that’s absolutely not to set up a binary in which artistic activity is an ahistorical, extrasocial constant born purely of an internal instinct: it’s hard to play the piano if no-one builds one for you and it’s hard to produce a novel in a society without writing. So these “individual” activities are situated in society and in discourse no less than the identities we associate with them. Rather, it is to point out that your perception of the value of your identity and society’s perception of the value of your identity may not at all be coextensive. Your having perfect pitch or being able to do the splits are facts; your belief that these facts entitles you to financial compensation is just that - a belief. That is, an ideology, in the classical Althusserian sense: ideology defined as the imaginary relationship between you and your lived conditions of existence (see Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”). Gramsci’s gloss on Prezzolini’s quote is typically succinct: “Intellectuals conceive of literature as a sui generis ‘profession’ that should ‘pay’ even when nothing is immediately produced and that it should entitle them to a pension. But who determines whether so-and-so is really a ‘man of letters’ and that society can support him in the expectation that he’ll produce a ‘masterpiece’?”
In other words, your ability to perform a given action which might be called “artistic” is an a priori proposition: either you can or you can’t. But your decision to then make that ability the basis for your self-identification is just that: your decision. Nobody makes you identify as an “artist”; nobody makes you choose that as your profession. To put it differently, what I’m talking about here (and what Gramsci and Prezzolini are talking about there) is a certain kind of ideological blindness, namely, the idea that your ability to do a certain kind of thing is a legitimate basis for a secure income - the idea that certain kinds of activities are accompanied by a certain kind of economic privilege.
But this belief, like its supposed benefits, is, precisely, a form of privilege: it’s the idea that the kind of activity you do is somehow automatically worth something to society, independently of the specific productions you generate and independently of the specific social formation you are part of. And it is this unreflexive, narcissistic form of privilege that produces the unfortunate impression among artists and intellectuals that because their society has historically placed a high ideological value on their particular kind of activity, they should in the present be entitled to enjoy the financial benefits their peers might have enjoyed in the past, that is, that deciding to self-identify as an “artist” entitles you to some kind of economic safety net, for the greater glory of mankind.
Now, there are two assumptions here, both equally baseless.
The first is that “art” is some transhistorical phenomenon - as if the inclinations which produced prehistoric cave paintings are affectively or structurally coextensive with the inclinations which lead you to spend all day sitting on a couch in Brooklyn getting high and futzing with GarageBand on your MacBook Pro.
The second, and more pernicious assumption, is that this transhistorical form of activity has an equally transhistorical form of social value, that is, the idea that “art” somehow “benefits” society in a way that is irreducible and irreplaceable. As a professional classical musician told me a few weeks ago over lunch, “I make society a better place with my instrument.” (As you can imagine, I almost choked on my club sandwich). Now, let’s put aside the dirty puns we could make here, let’s equally put aside the idea that 200 old ladies in Lincoln Center who listen to you play Bach are somehow equivalent to “society.” Let’s accept the idea that art has some form of social value somehow, beyond the immediate interests of its practitioners. Instead, let’s talk about supply and demand - specifically, about the way that the value of social goods is determined.
I think the point can be made with a simple analogy. Let’s take all the classical musicians and lock them up for 2 weeks to prevent them from playing classical music. Then let’s release them and lock up all the plumbers for a week to prevent them from plumbing. What “good” do you think will be more highly valued by “society” - the ability to listen to Beethoven’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in F Major, or the ability to not have backed-up shitwater streaming out of your toilet bowl? In other words - if the social value of “art” is not located in its popular appreciation or in its utility - that is, in the forces that govern supply and demand - then where is it located? What determines its form, its content, and its social value?
Now at least, after this considerable detour, we get to problem with which I opened, namely, the problem of change and sacrifice. Specifically, the problem I keep noticing both among artists and grad students is lip service to the political goal of pulling down the sites and institutions of capitalist power - the sites and institutions that determine and enforce the unequal distribution of wealth - without any consciousness of how their own self-identification might be compromised in the process. Because, ladies and gentlemen, the very same sites and institutions which determine the unequal distribution of wealth are the ones which maintain the existence of your chosen identity outside the vicissitudes of market forces - that is, the sites and institutions of privilege whose grip on the circulating economy is powerful enough to resist the forces of supply and demand. The same people who think it’s unconscionable for the government to subsidize corn farmers in the Midwest to serve the interest of the ethanol lobby have no problem at all with the government subsidizing their oboe-playing to serve the interests of the trustees of Lincoln Center. The same people who are outraged to think that wars are waged by the United States to justify the existence of a military bureaucracy firmly believe that society owes them the freedom to spend 5 years not working while writing a dissertation on Chaucer. And this, to my mind, is a form of hypocrisy. Specifically, a form of hypocrisy born of economic privilege.
The bottom line is this: there is only one base, and there is only one superstructure. Say it with me - there is only one economy. That means that the cultural privilege you demand for yourself can’t be separated from the financial privilege that holds it in place and makes it possible. It also means that any significant shift in the latter could very well produce a significant shift in the former. And if we’re committed to the idea of a significant shift in the economic structures that guarantee inequality, we also have to be prepared to sacrifice the “high culture” that is underwritten by those very structures. We might have to accept the fact that “high culture” is going to turn back into plain old “culture,” and finally wake up the immanent economic reality of the fact that the only difference between a professional classical pianist and an amateur pianist is the amount of time they can afford to spend practicing. And I say this as a classically trained pianist.
In other words - if you think that Wall Street executives are drawing overblown bonuses out of proportion with the amount of work they’re doing, but you see absolutely no problem with someone receiving a $500,000 MacArthur Genius Grant for writing a bunch of poems, then, ideologically, at least, you’re part of the problem, not part of the solution.
As usual, Gramsci says it best: “The intellectual function cannot be cut off from productive work in general, and the same is true for artists - unless they have effectively shown themselves to be ‘artistically’ productive Nor will this be harmful to ‘art’; indeed, it might even be helpful. It will only be detrimental to the artistic ‘bohème,’ and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.”