The Beauty of a Social ProblemPhotography, Autonomy, Economy

The Beauty of a Social ProblemPhotography, Autonomy, Economy

Walter Benn Michaels

Print publication date: 2018

ISBN: 9780226210261

Publisher: University of Chicago Press


This book focuses on the work of several artists, mostly photographers and mostly born in the 1970s. Their age matters because they have lived their entire lives in a world in which aesthetic ambition has been mainly identified with a certain critique of form and meaning (call it postmodernism) and in which the struggle between capital and labor has been mainly won by capital (call it neoliberalism). This book argues that these aesthetic and political conditions are connected, that, for example, the ongoing hostility to the idea of the autonomy of the work of art is related to the ongoing inability to understand what it means for the productivity of labor to rise while its share of income falls. More precisely, the book is about the way in which the critique of form makes the very difference between labor and capital-–the difference of class-–invisible, and about the ways in which the new formal ambitions of the works analyzed here invoke as well a new set of political ambitions. What these artists give us is not quite a class politics but, more important for art, a class aesthetic.