Issue 1/2012 - Bon Travail

Art in Capital

On Reproducing the Present

Kerstin Stakemeier

»To the contrary, the deartification of art is intrinsic, to oblivious art no less than to the kind that sells itself out.«1
In his »Aesthetic Theory,« published posthumously in 1970, Theodor W. Adorno characterizes the »deartification of art« as its modern progressive form, as a state of continued disintegration. It is the reverse side of its social autonomy, which destroys itself between art’s increasing identification with industrialized mass culture on the one hand and growing alienation from inherited forms of the aura on the other. While the aura of pre-modern art was rooted in its distance from its observers, in notions of the objective immediacy of what was portrayed, the autonomization of art subjectified this immediacy and allowed it to become dependent on subjectivity, the administration of which Adorno observed in the industrialization of mass culture.
»The poles of its [the artwork’s, KS] deartification are that it becomes a thing among other things as well as a vehicle of the viewer’s own psychology.«2
Adorno himself already wasn’t interested per se in the question of the moral integrity of cultural artifacts, their producers or observers, but rather quite simply in their material forms of existence in capitalism – in art as a bizarre ideal commodity whose production at that time was quite exclusive and whose prestige value became more and more evident in the post-war era. In art’s modern form, social realities came to light that, in its solipsistic modes of production, moved more visibly into the foreground than in the much less narratively conceived capitalist industrial production with its division of labor. This very position, art seen as being stretched between participation in and identification with mass culture, whose luxury segment it ultimately constitutes (through its formal and real subsumption under capital), and the profanation of its representative potency to become autonomy of expression instead (reduced to a mere mirror image of the world of goods) – this position points up the radical changes that have occurred between Adorno’s and our present. The economic boundaries between the different segments of cultural production, and the social boundaries between objects of art and their viewers – the blurring of which Adorno dubs »deartification« – were purposefully torn down over the past 50 years in the arts and consistently pushed aside economically.
My argument is that deartification took leave of the »eternal modern«3 over the past 50 years not just through artistic acts but also because of the increasing professionalism of these acts and the consequent capitalization of its conditions of production. This applies to changes in the type of art as well as in its producers. In the early 1940s, for instance, only 60 graduate students were enrolled in the fine arts at 11 universities in the USA; by 1950/51 their number had increased to 322 at 32 institutions; in the 1970s, 75 new MFA programs were on offer; and from 1990 to 1995, 10,000 students graduated with a MFA degree in the USA alone.4 Only a fraction of the students thus trained survive as artists – the overwhelming majority become assistants who push their way into the art industry’s production and distribution sector, where they fulfill a host of functions.
Today, deartification has become everyday business. Large segments of the art market as well as the exhibition scene are comprised of products on top of products whose only purpose is to »appeal to« viewers. And yet the production conditions that made this generalization of deartification a central characteristic of mass high culture also form the very artistic artifacts and attitudes that continue to try to realize the potentials of art beyond its deartification. In our capitalist present, crisis-prone to an extent that doesn’t appear likely to find a political or economic end anytime soon, this systematic increase in professionalism means that art participates objectively not merely in the discourses and calculations of national and supranational economies in crisis, but also in the possible re-politicization of reproduction conditions in capitalism.

[b]Once upon a time …[/b]
It is of note here that Adorno wrote an »Aesthetic Theory« and not an »Artistic Theory.« In his understanding of artistic modernism, art is to be regarded as a faculty of knowledge, as a counterpart to philosophy and thus as mental as opposed to physical labor. In essence, the transition of modernism to the present revolves around art’s differentiation and economic distinction. In Adorno’s view, deartification could only be stopped by aesthetic means, but even he was already peering at a modernism that had run its course, where insight had forcefully been thrown back to the material. He wrote an »Aesthetic Theory« about the remains of a bourgeois high culture that had lost its reason for being due to the war economy and the ensuing skyrocketing industrialization of mass culture, due to fascism in Europe and Nazi collectivization in Germany; a culture that had to find a new meaning in the face of its capitalization and the industrial destruction of its subjects. Thus, deartification was pushed through as the enforced identity of high and mass culture, just as subject and object were also pushed through – their renewed separation after the Allied victory a mere formality. Art’s materialization, however, had to be aligned with contemporary society, which Deleuze took a very different view of in 1968:
» Structuralism is [...] a way of thinking [...] that chips away at it [the subject, KS] and systematically distributes it, that negates the subject’s identity, dissolves it, lets it move from place to place, a subject that [...] consists of individuations, albeit impersonal ones, or of special features that would then be pre-individual.«5
As obscure as this quote may seem, it paints a clear picture of the situation that Adorno examined at the same time – the existence of the bourgeois subject after its historical decline.
To a certain extent, art had externally become the fulfillment of Adorno’s prospect of an epistemological negation in the name of aesthetics – high culture, the ideal of which revolved around the ideal of the subject, disintegrated. The social division of mental and physical work had always contained its deartification, its material indifference as well as its psychological interchangeability. But realizing this tendency as an actual political power allowed autonomy to return in the form of heteronomy. Thus, the deartification of art effectively becomes the return of political power as an economic force. From the point of view of an »Aesthetic Theory« of modernism, the 1950s and 60s presented themselves as a continued »end game« to Adorno, as the repetition of a bourgeois art autonomy with intolerable stipulations, while Deleuze no longer presented modernism as an integrated field of failed autonomy, but rather »beyond itself,« crisscrossed by political efforts to create points of affirmation within the heteronomies from which one could confront capitalism. But what if one doesn’t regard the historic breach in modernism brought about by World World Two merely as an unlimited breakthrough of historical negation, but also as a context of production, as the material basis for a society where (high) culture became real capital and where, therefore, its production and reception no longer take place in spatial and temporal separation? In 1971, Otto Karl Werckmeister describes this context as the arrival of artistic production in the present:
»Van Gogh’s and Cézanne’s paintings were autonomous and not for sale; only gradually, after the painters had died, did they begin to be valued at the millions they have reached today. The modern art that had evolved in the second half of the 19th century without any consideration for the bourgeois public was assimilated by it, bit by bit, in a rapidly increasing reception that became fully simultaneous with artistic production after World War Two.«6
I would like to reformulate the beginning of contemporary art, which Werckmeister pinpointed in its reception, within categories of its production instead: Van Gogh und Cézanne were not able to make a living as artists. Their production was individual and sporadic – linked only by their personal and financial commitment and their dedication to content. The increasing cultural installation of the bourgeoisie as a class in the transition from the 19th to the 20th century was accompanied by an increased interest in purchasing and looking at »modern« art, by a recognition of the artist as a professional and of his production as work. The efforts made by the artistic avant-garde to gain independence from such patronage in the name of »art for art’s sake« then faced a crisis of financing and meaning in the face of fascism and the war it set off in Europe; in the post-war economy, the producers of art then became part of a capitalist modernization that placed their point of production in the midst of popular mass culture. As Alison and Peter Smithson put it in 1956:
»We cannot ignore the fact that one of the traditional functions of fine art, the definition of what is fine and desirable for the ruling class, and therefore ultimately that which is desired by all society, has now been taken over by the ad-man.«7
Contemporary art hence begins not least with the social and economic repositioning of art in Western post-war capitalism, and New York didn’t necessarily steal the idea of modern art but rather staged it anew as the capitalized, expanding niche called »Contemporary Art.« What Serge Guilbaut retraces as a factual de-politicization of revolutionary modernism and, with its re-politicization, as a medium of the Cold War,8 amounts at the same time to its material repositioning, not just in much-berated mass consumption, but also in the mass production underlying it.
Helen Molesworth argues that, just as in the late 1950s for the first time more than 50 percent of Americans were employed in the service sector, during the same era a movement started up in art in which artists developed a self-image as »art workers.«9 If nothing else, it was a movement that built on a factual »proletarianization« in contrast to the situation before the war, when, for example, artist unions successfully fought within the framework of the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s for state aid for artistic activities.10 But Molesworth and Julia Bryan-Wilson11 stress the fact that in the 1960s, politicizing the artistic self-image stood in contrast to unionized organization before the war. The later movement wasn’t as much about recognizing art as labor as it was about its self-determination as work in its own right. In this context, both Molesworth and Bryan-Wilson examine in detail the Art Workers Coalition (AWC) of the late 1960s, as well as the conceptualization of artistic work. I, however, would like to highlight a different aspect since my objective is to describe how the production conditions for art changed after 1945. Artists’ new self-image as »art workers« resulted from the simultaneity artistic production was now subject to, as described by Werckmeister – on the basis of which artistic work now became the center of attention.

[b]… asynchronously …[/b]
Walter Benjamin begins his famous essay on works of art with a comment on the status of art within capitalist methods of production. He says, »The transformation of the superstructure, which takes place far more slowly than that of the substructure, has taken more than half a century to manifest in all areas of culture the change in the conditions of production.« 12 Looking back at Werckmeister’s comments on the changes in the perception of contemporary art after 1945 and the Smithsons’ observation on its displacement in society at that very moment, one could argue that the original accumulation, the movement of which Benjamin observed in culture, characterizes the continued instituting of art within capitalist production. Concentration on the asynchrony of the development of different areas of production within capital not only opens up an expanded understanding of production conditions in art, but also of its proximity to other areas in society, the social »superstructure,« those other sections of culture that modern art hoped to flee but that ever since the 1960s have been more and more subsumed as parts of artistic production.
But how did the material transition from modern to contemporary art develop from an economically established social shift to an actively reciprocated practice in artistic production? In this context, the 1960s »art workers« are central in many respects. For one, because they lacked the asynchrony Benjamin describes, since their production had moved into the realm of social visibility. For another, because the artists’ self-identification as workers took place in turn in evident asynchrony with much more rapid developments in the »substructure« as they also clearly distanced themselves from wage labor by not identifying art with it. The »art workers’« withdrawal of solidarity with their function within a broad understanding of cultural production, their adhering to art to halt its factual deartification, marks a position that is still omnipresent today: the acknowledgement of art as mental in contrast to physical work.
Jeff Wall describes the transition of »art productivism« in the 1960s to its identification instead with the service sector that began to boom in the real economy in the 1950s:
»If Warhol could imitate a media firm, others coming after him could imitate a museum department, a research institute, an archive, a community-service organisation and so on – that is, one could develop a mimesis, still within the institution of art, of any and every one of the potential new domains of creativity suggested by the conceptual reduction, but without thereby having to renounce the making of works.«13
As much as I would agree with Wall that this imitation has become an essential construction principle of art in this day and age, I would hardly share the assumption implied in the quote that such a »work character« can be projected indiscriminately onto Pop, Conceptual art and institutional criticism. However, the disembodiment of the imitated relationships is essential, because the work of the respective institution is repeated as intellectual work, not as an interaction between production and reproduction, which simultaneously became increasingly central as art production was transferred to assistants and museum and gallery employees. In closing, it is just this exclusion of reproduction I want to focus on.

[b]… and it will be once again …[/b]
»The true barrier to capitalist production is capital itself. It is that capital and its self-valorization appear as the starting and finishing point, as the motive and purpose of production; production is production only for capital and not the reverse, i.e. the means of production are not simply means for a steadily expanding pattern of life for the society of the producers.«14
According to Karl Marx, an essential purpose of capital is its existence as a reproduction machine for the conditions of its own production. With regard to the artistic forms of the imitation of capitalist production since the 1960s and their real subsumption under such production, the question hence arises of to what extent this role of reproduction had advanced in the awareness and practice of contemporary art. If nothing else, one can calculate on this basis how far it departed from mere modernism with a new face, bade farewell to the nostalgic love for pre-war conditions of production, or to what extent it repeats for the present their insistence on an incomparable individual production dependent alone on mental labor.
Adorno’s version of modern art was blind to Marx’s reproduction movement; its realization along the latter’s terminology would have amounted to its complete deartification: to even presume to identify with capital on the basis of individual artistic production fails to recognize art’s social elimination from its own reproduction. However, if one takes into account the increasing professionalism of the productive forces in contemporary art, as Diedrich Diederichsen so accurately describes them, saying that today, art as commodity doesn’t merely contain the »artist’s living labor«, but also »the additional, non-artistic living labor of the artist’s employees and assistants as well as that of subsidiary firms such as printers, foundries, etc. In addition, however, it further – and above all – contains the spiritual management of all of these subordinate types of labor by a director, a person in charge.«15 It therefore follows that the strategy of »de-materialization«16 of art that still appeared so innocent in the 1960s in reaction to its materialization as a commodity was by no means without consequences, but rather carried within it presumptions about the capitalist organization of labor that in turn advanced its capitalization instead of thwarting it. For, to follow Marx’s terminology, where artistic production is concerned, characterized as modernist individualization by Adorno, we’re talking about unproductive labor. With the division of labor that Warhol staged as part of his art, however, productive labor increasingly seeped into the production of art. This implies for one thing growing professionalism in artistic production, as in all cultural production in capital, and for another, the emergence of the category of »socially necessary working hours«17 in these areas, i.e. the comparability of artistic production based on its means of production. Thus, not only have an ever growing number of trained artists been emerging since the 1960s, so has an economic system that assigns these artists different roles in the expanding capital segment of contemporary art. This could be regarded as mundane if criticism of contemporary art’s rapport with capital hadn’t repeatedly cast aspersions at figures in modern art who stand for this very exclusion of reproduction from view: glorifying intellectual labor and its capacity to create what is »new.«
At this point, one can’t overemphasize the significance of artistic productions like Claes Oldenburg’s conversion of street garbage, Allan Kaprow’s art as a forum for repetition, Mierle Laderman Ukele’s »Maintenance Art,« General Idea’s »Drags« of heterosexuality, Mel Bochner’s unfolding of language as an inadequate reproductive structure, Lee Lozano’s boycott series, and Richard Prince’s cowboys who already belong to the past at the time they’re conceived. The limited categorization of a good half of these bodies of work as »feminist art« omits one very important fact: that the inclusion of reproduction in art on more than just the level of what is being depicted means not only a fundamental renunciation of the modern idea of intellectual creation but also the anticipation of a social solidarity that goes beyond art and lays bare its identity with other areas of reproduction in society: its political and economic production conditions, which really aren’t purely aesthetic at all.
In her criticism of postoperaism, Silvia Federici labels the »invention« of »immaterial labor« and its female form, »affective labor,« as an escape from the capitalism critique into a superstructure that is blind to material workers as well as to material reproduction.18 The continued ideational as well as material identification of reproduction with the social role of women is proof of one limitation of the capitalism critique, because it doesn’t stem from its essential motivation, reproduction, but instead joins others in making a fetish of production. Federici identifies housework as labor and this is a general fact: all reproductive labor must consequently be identified as, or better, within, productive labor. That and nothing else is what W.A.G.E.19 insists on in its demands to convert artistic labor to wage labor and thus to enable artistic production beyond its expansion based on the division of labor. As far as W.A.G.E. is concerned, wage demands allow art at its best moments to liberate itself from offering state or capitalist institutions their own artistic »added value.« Wage demands here do not concern art’s social value, which might have to be affirmed in a bourgeois sense – they concern officially reclaiming one’s own production as reproduction, beyond the contents, which are never ever to be discussed with state authorities or even along their lines.
When demonstrating the political connection between the form of production and its contents, a modernist who most consistently broke with modernisms is proven right, Bertolt Brecht: »realism: the common assumption is that a work of art is the more realistic the easier it is to recognize reality in it. I would like to counter that with the definition that a work of art is the more realistic the more visibly reality has been mastered in it [...] as much to gain control as to keep it, the working class needs realism that acts and reflects, and that isn’t anything special: the bourgeoisie needed realism, too, and it still does.«20
Today, working class and bourgeoisie may very well be socially vague categories, but as dimensions of political partisanship, they remain clearly divided. Where artistic realism only represents the realism of the bourgeoisie, which aims to retain mental labor as a refuge for freedom, any political rhetoric within it will remain conservative. But where artistic realism introduces a realism of the working class, artistic or not, one will find opportunities for solidarity in the prospect of social reproduction. Adorno’s deartification is two-sided today: it is still capital’s threat to intellectual labor, but at the same time, it has been strategically employed in the fight against its reproduction conditions.
An artistic politics of reproduction conditions should however be found on the side of the artists as well with us curators and authors. To that end we, too, should force reproduction to the forefront of production; we should linger as artists continue their work instead of searching for the constantly new and unique exemplar in the sea of artwork; we should not establish monographic oeuvres but instead understand repertoires in their relationship to one another; and we should accept art as our common boundary, as a segment of production within a capitalism in crisis instead of as a glorious exception to an eternally naturalized modernism.

Central themes in the text stem from joint works with Roger Behrens, Eva Birkenstock, Oliver Jelinski, Christiane Ketteler, Anja Kirschner and David Panos, Michaela Melián, Johannes Paul Raether, Amy Sillman, Wibke Tiarks and Marina Vishmidt, the »repertoire« in particular from a discussion with Ian White.
A previous version of this text was read on December 2, 2011, as part of the series »Beau Travail – Vortragsreihe zum Thema Arbeit« in the Halle für Kunst in Lüneburg.


Translated by Jennifer Taylor-Gaida


1 Theodor W. Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie. Frankfurt am Main 1970, p. 94.
2 Ibid., p. 33.
3 Cf. Otto Karl Werckmeister, “Das Kunstwerk als Negation,” in: Otto Karl Werckmeister, Ende der Ästhetik. Frankfurt am Main 1971, p. 12 ff.
4 Helen Molesworth, “Work Ethics,” in: Helen Molesworth, Work Ethic, exh. cat., Baltimore 2003, p. 32.
5 Gilles Deleuze, Woran erkennt man den Strukturalismus? Berlin 1992, p. 55.
6 Werckmeister, op.cit., p. 9.
7 Alison & Peter Smithson, “But Today We Collect Ads,” in: Steven Henry Maddoff (ed.), Pop Art – A Critical History. Berkeley 1997, p. 3.
8 Cf. Serge Guilbaut, Wie New York die Idee der Modernen Kunst gestohlen hat. Basel 1997.
9 Molesworth, op.cit., p. 27.
10 Cf. Andrew Hemingway, Artists on the Left, 1926–1956. New Haven 2002.
11 Julia Bryan-Wilson, Art Workers. Berkeley 2009, e.g. p. 26ff.
12 Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in: Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zohn, New York 1969, pp. 217-218.
13 Jeff Wall, Depiction, Object, Event. Hermes Lecture, 2006,
14 Karl Marx, Capital, A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 3, Penguin Classics, London 1991, p. 358.
15 Diedrich Diederichsen, On (Surplus) Value in Art. Berlin 2008, p. 77.
16 Lucy Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, Berkeley 1973, passim.
17 Marx, op.cit., p. 150.
18 Silvia Federici, “Precarious Labour: A Feminist Viewpoint,” in: Variant, Issue 37/38,
19 Cf.
20 Bertold Brecht, Arbeitsjournal 1938–1955. ed. by Werner Hecht. Berlin 1973, pp. 82 and 310.