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„Aber etwas fehlt. But something’s missing.“

Marxist Art History between Possibility and Necessity

Friday, December 04, 2015 to Saturday, December 05, 2015


(c) Sarah Szczesny 2015

“But something’s missing,” insists Paul Ackermann, one of the main characters in Bert Brecht’s opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930), while his friends continue to celebrate life. In the middle of this capital of pleasure—the city of the net that has abolished work and where money can buy all the fun imaginable—Paul Ackermann feels a phantom pain. Today the situation depicted in Brecht’s Mahagonny seems to be pretty realistic—it is the existence of a world in which labor is no longer at the core of social cohesion and where there is nonetheless no good reason to celebrate.

Throughout much of the twentieth century, proponents of Marxist art history such as Lu Märten, Arnold Hauser, Meyer Schapiro, T. J. Clark, Carol Duncan, and Linda Nochlin provided decisive impulses linking social and political developments with questions as to the relevance of art. It was Marxist criticism that included the contexts of the production of artworks and their makers in our understanding of art, and thereby led art out of its social isolation as a form of representative excellence.

The global crisis since 2008 has changed things fundamentally. It is not a crisis of labor but one of finance, in which human labor seems to be only secondary at best. Under these conditions, how can a materialist art history be practiced, given that its methods have always been centered on the synthetic power of labor? Can labor be brought back into the focus of our perception of society? Or is it possible to conceive of a materialism that considers art outside of the realm of labor?

“Aber etwas fehlt. But something’s missing.” intends to claim the productivity of a present-day materialist art history for contemporary art. In lectures and discussion, this symposium will look at those art histories since the 1960s that have been based on materialist approaches to understanding art. Exploration of the history—or histories—of Marxist art history and their political and aesthetic parameters will engender possible paths into the present. The current relationships between “Marxist” and “political” will be addressed, as will the question as to how an institution like mumok can position itself within these debates.

With Sabeth Buchmann, Helmut Draxler, Peter Gorsen, Isabelle Graw, Andrew Hemingway, Élisabeth Lebovici, Sven Lütticken, Jaleh Mansoor, Jenny Nachtigall, Ana Teixeira Pinto, Giovanna Zapperi


Friday, December 4, 2015, mumok Lounge


Introduction by Manuela Ammer and Kerstin Stakemeier

Keynotes: The Histories of Marxist Art History

The three introductory keynotes lay out the pre-histories of what is our present tense. Three distinguished art historians, whose work has been exemplary in shaping debates around Marxist art history in very different contexts (and who continue to understand their work in Marxist and/or historical materialist terms) give an account of their own Marxist art history. Andrew Hemingway considers the controversial role of aesthetics and ideology for art historians of the New Left after 1968; Élisabeth Lebovici analyzes the problematic relationship of Marxist art history and poststructuralism; and Peter Gorsen follows the historically changing significance of yet another ambivalent subject of Marxist art history: the (im)possibility of art’s popularization. These different approaches pose the question as to which debates have the potential for actualization and can be made productive for an understanding of the here and now.

“Baby with the Bathwater”? Art History between Marxist Science and Marxist Aesthetics
Andrew Hemingway (Prof. emeritus, University College London)

The main form of Marxism encountered by students and academics of the New Left in Britain post-1968 was Althusserianism. Louis Althusser’s theoretical innovations in the theory of ideology exerted enormous influence on film studies, literary criticism, and, to a lesser extent, art history. In the first part of his lecture, Hemingway looks at attempts by Nicos Hadjinicolaou and T.J. Clark to rethink the operations of ideology in the visual arts in the light of more recent theorizing of the category. One concomitant of Althusser’s attempt to give rigid philosophical parameters to Marxist science was a dismissal of aesthetics as a residue of pre-scientific bourgeois thought. By contrast, for Theodor W. Adorno, to subsume art under ideology was to throw out the “baby with the bathwater.” In the second part of his lecture, Hemingway considers where art history stands in relation to the yawning gulf between Althusserian science and Adorno’s critique of instrumental reason.


One is not Born a Marxist, one is not Born a Woman.
Élisabeth Lebovici (art critic/historian, curator, lecturer, Paris)

Despite the “return to Marx” by French philosophers, such as Louis Althusser, in the mid-1960s, the possibilities of expanding into a new Marxist art history did not catch on within poststructuralist circles at the time, perhaps because such circles were adamantly opposed to the cultural politics practiced by the communist party in France. The group “Histoire et Critique des Arts” (1977–1980), for example, of which Nicos Hadjinicolaou was a founding member, is only mentioned in passing in recent pertinent anthologies, such as Renew Marxist Art History. Nevertheless, the group’s international scope contributed to the construction of the nineteenth century as the “ideal object” of Marxist art history and sustained a reflection on the institutions and ideologies of art history in France—a kind of reflection that is unfortunately lost today. Less condemned to obsolescence were the developments that took place in the sphere of ideology and culture through materialist feminist positions. Focused on language and representation, the radical turn of Monique Wittig in the 1970s rethought sex, gender, and compulsory heterosexuality, which had been little figured in the lengthy history of Marxist practices. This shift, however—reflected in a form of writing as a dissonant subject evading straight grammatical norms—can provide the missing link between Marxist art history and poststructuralism.


Social Realizations and Constellations of Marxist Intended Aesthetics and Communication
Peter Gorsen (Prof. emeritus, University of Applied Arts Vienna)

The Soviet Proletkult is perhaps the most consequential historical example of a fundamental popularization of art toward a general artistic practice—a radical socialization of art. In this sense, it can serve as the paragon for any Marxist art history that aims not only at demonstrating past historical struggles but also at provoking contemporary ones. In his lecture, Peter Gorsen looks back at the artistic politics of the Proletkult and at subsequent attempts to transfer the questions it posed into the Marxist art history that followed it, attempts he himself was a key protagonist of within the German-speaking context in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Gorsen looks at the drastic reconfigurations that the relationship of art, culture, and economy has undergone since the 1960s and asks about the relevance of the Proletkult today. Doing so, he also confronts us with the question of what an actualized understanding of Marxist art history that thrives to be politically consequential might be.

Saturday, December 5, 2015, mumok cinema


Introduction Panel 1: The Continuous Crisis. Marxist Art History and Discontinuity

The thesis underlying this panel is that the notion of crisis has recently been the subject of a historical shift: from denoting one cyclical phenomenon within capitalist economies to defining one of its permanent characteristics—if not the permanent characteristic. With the exposure of Western capitalism’s financialized crisis in 2008, a predominance of derivative economic structures has surfaced that is intrinsic not only to the financial sectors of capital but permeates all spheres of production, distribution, and consumption today, determining its subjects and objects. The panelists lay out their own understanding of crisis and discuss the relevance of this notion for an understanding of Marxist art history now.

After [the] Crisis
Sven Lütticken (program director VAMA, VU University Amsterdam)

The crisis of capitalism has always turned out to be yet another crisis in capitalism—the kind that is part of cycles of boom and bust that are themselves mapped onto a growth curve. However, now that growth has been replaced by wealth redistribution and “jobless recovery” after each crisis, we may as well say—with Maurizio Lazzarato—that crisis has morphed into permanent catastrophe. This, of course, is also the catastrophe of art as a financialized product that seems immune and autonomous from crisis; the autonomy of art has become the autonomy of finance. In this context, Lütticken reexamines Marxist and other notions of the present as prehistory or posthistory—of history having not fully begun or already ended—in conjunction with artistic practices that reflect on and intervene with a historical situation in which the future is a subject for nostalgia. 

Returns of the Real: (Re)Production, Media, and Crisis
Jenny Nachtigall (research associate in philosophy, Academy of Fine Arts Munich)

While labor power has always been the real of capital, today materiality and medium-specificity arguably function as the real of an art that embraces the digital and the derivative as the logic of its (re)production. It is thus little surprising that advocates of speculative aesthetics and philosophy recently argued not only for the obsolescence of Marxism as such, but also of art as a material practice (e.g. Suhail Malik). Less interested in these phenomena per se, Nachtigall suggests that they help to clarify the stakes of Marxist art history today, and thus of the study of art’s relations, conflicts, and its (re)production—and of a real that cannot be simply sublated into obsolescence. Consequently, she focuses on some of the recent returns of the real in the face of crisis, of a real, that is, in which discourse has consequences (Alenka Zupančič).

Figuring Wage Labor in 1962: From Andre to Manzoni; from Productivist Iconography to Index and Sabotage
Jaleh Mansoor (assistant professor for art history, University of British Columbia, Vancouver)

This paper will compare the way in which labor is figured in the work of Carl Andre, Robert Morris, and Piero Manzoni in the early 1960s in order to attempt to derive that which is “missing” in a Marxist art history. Mansoor sets her reading of Manzoni’s Linea, anti-composed on an assembly line, against the American Minimalists’ production of primary structures to argue that, far from a monumentalizion and myth-making reification of the virtue of “work,” Manzoni’s practice offers a critique of labor. Manzoni’s practice, configured from the point of view of labor in the interest of the worker’s liberation from the logic of evacuation and quantification demanded by the value form, prefigures the ultra-left’s disarticulation of labor as a site for proletarian self-realization. Mansoor draws on “workers’ inquiry” (Romano Alquati), a methodology developed in the context of the Italian ultra-left (Operaismo) to make her case. As such, this paper offers a new reading of the problem of “skill” in twentieth-century art.

Lunch break

In Conversation: The State of the Art Commodity
Isabelle Graw (professor of art theory, Städelschule, Frankfurt am Main)

Today, the question of the capitalist value of art has exceeded its mere commodity form—art as commodity is but one of many forms in which its value appears. This discussion with Isabelle Graw looks at the question of the different actualities of the forms in which the value of art is defined. How can the many metaphorical uses of the word “value” in contemporary art (exhibition value, symbolic value, etc.) be brought into relation with its economic uses (commodity value, exchange value, etc.)? And what role does the artist’s labor or, rather, artistic work play in the conception of the value of art?

Coffee break


Introduction Panel 2: Art after Labor? Marxist Art History in the Age of Financialization

This panel is concerned with the question as to how far the notion of labor finds itself in a state of flux within a contemporary understanding of Marxist art history. Underlying the panel is the assumption that labor, as the category that initially distinguished Marxist art histories from other art histories (where work processes in art were rendered invisible in order to champion the immediacy of individual creative expression), has itself been socially sidelined. Human labor, once identified by Marx as the only source of surplus value, today appears as a secondary aspect of the production of value. Rather than posit that capital has in fact outlived labor, the panelists will discuss how a contemporary Marxist art history can confront this problem and reconstruct the relationship between labor and value in art, beyond nostalgia.

Art as (un-)Specific Work as (un-)Specific labor
Sabeth Buchmann (professor of art history, Academy of Fine Arts Vienna)

Despite the popularity of the format of rehearsal at the intersections of film, dance/theater, music, and fine arts, this is an issue that has rarely been considered in modern and contemporary art discourse. Against this background, this paper will investigate the role of "rehearsals," understood as a tool to merge distinctive notions of work and labor. Documentations and/or (re-)presentations of rehearsals are typical of project-based and collaborative types of artistic work, where they are used to visualize the in-the-making of concepts, procedures, roles, rules, and skills. Reviewing them, one can observe an emphasis on the emergence and/or rejection of specific knowhow and capabilities. Arguing that modes of rehearsal expound the problems of art-as-performative-labor, the hypothesis here is that they might help us to look more precisely at the shifting demarcations between specific and unspecific aesthetic work and its particular assessment as physical, affective, and/or intellectual labor.

The Liquidity Trap
Ana Teixeira Pinto (art critic/writer, curator, Berlin)

Since 2008, new capital has been massively created to prevent the devaluation of existing capital, but this excess liquidity has not found its way back into the production cycle. On the contrary, it has been swiftly locked away into idle assets––such as luxury goods, art, and real estate. This surplus liquidity roaming around in the markets impacts artistic production: to paraphrase Reinier de Graaf, once discovered as a form of capital, there is no choice for artworks but to operate according to the logic of capital. In the diffuse world of post-Fordist economies, culture gets divorced from the social, appearing instead as a techno-economic biosphere––a negative totality whose fundamental metaphor is liquidity.

Art, Life, and Labor: a Feminist Critique. 
Giovanna Zapperi (professor of art history and theory, École nationale supérieure d’art, Bourges)

This paper takes as its starting point the modernist notion of the artist as an autonomous figure and looks at 1970s feminist revisions of this notion. Zapperi proposes to read the relation between art, life, and labor through the lens of Carla Lonzi’s critique of art as labor, as part of her call for a rejection of (male) competitive structures in favor of non-productivity and free relations. Carla Lonzi was an important art critic and feminist in 1960s and 1970s Italy, who decided to withdraw from the art world in 1970. In her texts, art emerges as entwined with a number of institutions, power relations, and strategies, as well as forms of sociability, life, and labor that structurally oppress women. This paper draws on Lonzi’s ideas about the artist’s alienation and masculinity in order to test their resonance from the point of view of a contemporary feminist critique of the seizure of life and its reduction to labor.


Preconditions for a Marxist Art History
Helmut Draxler (professor of art theory, University of Applied Arts Vienna)

In his closing keynote, Draxler investigates what he considers three preconditions for a Marxist art history: 1. An “idea of art” that is neither a timeless ideal whose function or context needs to be reconstructed nor pure ideology to be dismantled for the sake of “real” history; 2. An awareness of the complex and divergent histories of the production of visual art and the production of images—two traditions that have run increasingly separate courses since the nineteenth century; 3. An idea of the relations of productions instead of a mere analysis of modes of productions: how do, for example, social relations “relate” to artistic and cultural differences? These preconditions themselves are related, yet need to be addressed in their dissimilarity if specific judgments are to be made, judgments that concern the periodization and the narratives, the categorization and the value assessment of what is considered art.

Concept by Manuela Ammer (curator, mumok) & Kerstin Stakemeier (professor of art theory and mediation,  Akademie der bildenden Künste Nürnberg) 

Admission free