Walter Benjamin, Progressivism and Fascism in Art Production

Dead Man in Pakistan--Head Shot, Flesh

Walter Benjamin argues that unless put to politically progressive purposes, the current mode of capitalist, industrial art production can favor fascism.  Progress need not lead to progressivism; fascism can hold sway when anything goes.  War is that  experience, that product where expression and conviction are left only  to those daring enough to put doubt aside.  I argue that–quite apart from some straw man– the contemporary mode of art production is not entirely beholden to commodity-signification, ‘non-aura-ed’ reproduction.   The declaration that art is sign, no longer has any monolithic adherents that follow it as a incontrovertible rule.  Art now can return to ritual because along with accepting that art making is also object-making, the artist cannot reject the proposition that every work of art is an object that always refers to some other third object.  Even if the artist concedes that art is not what one makes, it is how one makes an object that we consider art, that object is always something else.  Fascism can be rejected because art can now be fully progressive, while rejecting the proposition that every object of art is subject to transfer of ownership.  Art is; and it can be, and be about, politics.

Benjamin argued that art production was intimately related to, and dependent on, ritual, performed and conducted for discrete and familiar communities.  For example, artists were commissioned to make art objects that examined and praised certain passages from the great and holy books.  The industrial mode of reproducible art production, severed the necessity of ritual in art-making.  It democratized art-making for the masses, and reduced the importance of uniqueness, of scarcity, and collectibility as a metric of evaluation in the business of art-production and consumption.

The business of art then rested on one familiar peg: art that could sell on the market, made, or directed into production by the conceiving auteur.  Art, in turn, left to its devices, expressed the inner life of the artist–including, but not limited to, the expression of his boiling violent, subconscious substrata; his awe at mundane things; his social convictions.

That’s when politics–broadly understood– cuts in.  The artist has a choice to make: he can either create art for the purpose of social benefit–however understood; alternatively he can choose, to use the modes of communication that have severed the ties of critical elitism to aestheticize his value for another critic, the buyer-collector.  As he always was, the artist can accede to the collector’s critical judgment; but now, of course, the necessary relationship between criticism and purchasing power has been overturned. If the artists submits to this reified function, everything turns on the buyers judgment, and directly through him, the judgment of all the middle-men engaged in smoothing out the transfer of ownership from the craftsman-producer to the buyer-owner.  However, since art can be reproduced at such large economies of scale, the artist can reject the art as commodity, commodity-signification hypothesis, and create art for his own sake, his own identity.  And moreover such a move can, compel the artist to create above and beyond his allegiances to his own creative self– expression is consistent with conviction; the line is drawn between the politically committed artist and the artist who commits works on different media in order to sell.  Hopscotching back and forth, over that line is the artist who commits works that are works of art, only, in and of themselves.

Benjamin is careful here; he does not favor the commodification hypothesis, nor is he comfortable with the insistence of the artist to create art for its own sake.  The artist must hold certain, nearly moral, convictions; otherwise the world, which according to Benjamin has become subject to greater democratic judgment, through the reproduciblity of art,  is turned to an aesthetic field of subjective divinations.  In that case, the fascist can put to one side, as indifferent at best, or a partisan at worst, that artist who is overwhelmed by the explosions of passion and hysteria that trail war.  Glory for the sake for glorification; everything is complete in its own womb.  A rule is a rule is a rule.

Today, we can reject that simple classification.  We know that fascism cannot strike from rule following: rules cannot show rule-followers when to adhere to them.  We know that signs always signify;  that even if art is an object, it is nevertheless art;  that, the viewer can reject any explanation of anything at all.  If anything goes, nothing need go.

Art can now be about politics; art can include irony, and in the same object, reject irony.  An artist now welcomes a secular ritual into his practice and abides by it, often, come what may.   Nevertheless, there are many other artists who seek to pronounce their work through different expressions, political all, yet varied in signification.

If Walter Benjamin was a pessimist who viewed progress with ambivalence and noted that the truth of any empirical proposition is, of necessity, fragmentary, he might have lauded my argument and, on the sly, rejected any hope that what I say is true.

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~ by Faheem Haider on October 24, 2009.

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