Artists Shrug: Other Realities Are Available

atlas and hercules

‘Hercules takes the burden from Atlas and bears the cosmos’
Stich von Heinrich Aldegrever, 1550

Only reading books which agree with your world view has always seemed to me to show a basic lack of confidence in your beliefs. Far better to intentionally encounter books which rub you up the wrong way, whether politically, intellectually or stylistically. If you emerge from that encounter with your original convictions still intact, then either they are pretty well reasoned or you are just robustly delusional. At the very least you might emerge with a different perspective on something, a fresh set of ideas, or a better understanding of the people who take the opposite stance from you. To this end, when I was about seventeen and interested in testing some of my nascent left wing views I read Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged, a book which runs counter to my politics, not to mention my taste in literature, in almost every way. Atlas Shrugged imagines an alternative United States which has started to grind to a halt, as its innovators and producers – in the novel mostly represented by industrialists and entrepreneurs, rather than artists – are being sucked dry of their energy and genius by the majority of the population who Rand portrays as parasites unable to produce or innovate themselves. In response to this a growing number of the innovators start to disappear to join a secret organisation, leaving their industries to collapse in the hands of those who have appropriated them. As the rather obvious titular metaphor implies, when Atlas the Greek Titan who bore the globe decides to shrug, the world will feel it.

While I could write a post on why I think Atlas Shrugged isn’t a great novel and why I find it’s politics broadly objectionable, this blogs remit does not include literary and political criticism. What I really want to talk about instead is the core idea of the book, that of dictating the terms on which the products of one’s labour circulate, or perhaps of withdrawing those products all together. In this climate of scarce opportunities and numerous creators often arrayed against each other in unnecessary competition, the work which we invest so much into is also often seen as a deeply disposable commodity, which requires little emotional or creative investment from viewers, or from the people who publish it, a tendency tied also to the idea that art is self-indulgent and without importance. All too often creative work is treated like filler to take up space between the really important content of adverts. My heartache of yesterday is today’s click bait, tomorrow’s broken link. It hurts to see the way so much hard work by talented people investigating important issues enters the meat grinder of the internet, is churned through click bait sites that offer no insight or thought of their own to the work but just want to use it to generate some page viewers, before being spat out the other end into the dustbin of ‘unexclusive’ or ‘overexposed’ content. The problem here for me is that while I don’t believe art deserves the rarefied (and largely financial) status generally afforded to it by contemporary art galleries and auction houses, I do believe that art has a range of very important functions in society, and processes and activities which deflate and erode art’s societal status need to be treated with as much concern as those which unrealistically overinflate it.

It’s a funny thing that Rand who was an émigré from Soviet Russia and was vehemently anti-communist, was talking about something in Atlas Shrugged not that dissimilar from Karl Marx’s concept of alienation, the process by which Marx believed capitalism divorces workers from, amongst other things, the products of their labour. I’m no Marxist, indeed as anyone who reads this blog regularly will know my attitude to theory is not ideologicaly dogmatic. Rather I try to view theory as a set of spanners, which you try out and discard until your find one which works for the job at hand. Marx’s idea is one I’ve been thinking a bit about recently in relation to art, and particularly forms of exploitative working relationships like artistic internships. As I indirectly suggested in War Primer 3, interns might be seen as part of the proletariat of the art world (to be sure a hetereogenous group which crosses many borders, social and economic groups, from well heeled interns to the construction workers of the newly emerging art super powers). I’ve also been wondering about the extent of the alienation that contemporary forms of display and circulation create between artists and their works. Whether the ‘clickbaitification’ of creative work is as damaging our relationship to our own practices and work as is it’s rareification. If the answer to either of these is yes, then it becomes an enticing project to think about ways to wrest back control over work by taking efforts to very consciously define and control the dissemination of it? In the coming weeks I will be writing more thoughts on how this might be done in ways which are both overt and confrontational, and others which work much more within the systems of exchange and influence that typify the art world. The assumption that the current status quo is acceptable, normal, or inevitable is a mistake. and in art as in the domains we often try to influence through our work, we need to believe that other realities are possible.

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