The middle class, by definition, is a middle term between labor and capital; if the reflexive need to elevate itself above “common” alienated work is one pole of its existence, a natural hostility to Big Capital is the other. (As a famous letter from King Leopold to Queen Victoria warns, rather amusingly: “The dealings with artists. . . require a great prudence; they are acquainted with all classes of society, and for that very reason dangerous.”) In a world as disenchanted as ours, desires to escape the routine humiliations of the economy are often channeled into the notion of becoming a visual artist. This investment can, in turn, imbue the profession with a genuinely radical character, making it a hospitable conductor for all kinds of alternative energies.
Indeed, beyond the bourgeois patron and the academic specialist, art audiences are drawn to art out of the need to escape the disenchantment of everyday life. The art world, however, is unable to resolve its core contradictions. Ideas of craft, conceptualism, participation (the art world is still disproportionately white and male), radical gestures (street art, etc.), and collective action—all come crashing, again and again, into the realities of neoliberal capital and economic crisis. Only revolution will begin to resolve this.
The first step for artists in the here and now is to recognize that art is not just an intellectual game. Art must be more. Indeed, the language of contemporary art often fails to articulate the breadth of contemporary human experience and suffering.
Art is “magic.” But this magic only works in dialectical interplay with the narratives of actual life. Separated from the real world, that magic becomes hollow and reified. As Davis writes, “[A]rt is not a world unto itself. Art is part of the world. That fact has to be a fundamental starting point for everything.”