The interview/conversation took place on November 22, 2002 at Deirdre McCloskey's magnificent apartment in Chicago [right]. In sending me directions to her house Deirdre included the following instructions: "You come out on Congress Expressway, and walk away from the brown building over the street called The Chicago Stock Exchange. Think "Fleeing from Capitalism!" Deirdre, of course, would rather have me slouching toward this icon of rampant accumulation and speculation, though not as a way to find her home. Ruminating later on Deirdre's instructions alongside her views about what she regards as the mostly irresponsible bolt of artists since the 19th century away from capitalism and their own bourgeois roots, it occurred to me that she had, indeed, not only given me righteous directions, but also an affable affirmation and gentle acknowledgement of my own lifelong line of flight. Not to mention a title for this piece. --JA
JA: I've heard you quite vehemently criticize artists and others who "bite the hand that feeds them." Could you say more about this, especially your concerns about the criticism of capitalism put forward in much 20th-century art and culture?
DM: To put it simply, which is all I myself can manage, around 1848 European artists and intellectuals turned against markets and capitalism. One sees it in painting and poetry and novels and drama; even in music, I think, though that's harder to show. By contrast, since the 17th century most artists in northwestern Europe, as in the golden age of Dutch painting, had worked for a bourgeois audience about bourgeois subjects, and the artists themselves regarded themselves as bourgeois. Rembrandt for example was a businessman, thoroughly. The English novel is a bourgeois form. Romanticism on the contrary sees the Artist as a Hero, unseared by trade.
JA: What is it that disturbs you about this?
DM: The arts after 1848 display an anti-Daddy prejudice that I find distasteful. Marx and Engels are not the only instances of sophomoric rebellion against bourgeois fathers. The English poet Arthur Clough, for instance, was the son of a cotton manufacturer, and we are treated therefore to such effusions as:
Thou shalt not steal; an empty feat,
When it's so lucrative to cheat. . . .
Thou shalt not covet, but tradition
Approves all forms of competition.
How different from Dr. Johnson a century before: "There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money."
JA: There are numerous things that are of issue in your response, and some things, of course, I'm sure I don't agree with, which shouldn't surprise you. One of the things I'm interested in is your take on whether or not you think art should represent any particular political and/or class position? It seems to me that you're disturbed by these artists coming from bourgeois families and who represent the bourgeoisie in unfair ways. I'm interested in two aspects of your disturbance. First, what is an "unfair" representation of the bourgeoisie?
DM: "Unfair" isn't quite the word I would use. Dickens in his early novels is amused by everyone: by the legal profession, by the business world, by politicians, by wives, by husbands, by everyone. Beginning with Dombey and Son in 1847-48, however, he stops being amused by capitalists; his novels become more and more harshly anti-bourgeois. Yet really he has little idea what he is talking about. He understood the business of publishing and the theatre, but took no trouble to grasp a wider economics. In common with a good many literary people he could not see exchange as voluntary or beneficial. And in common with even many economists at the time he did not grasp the astonishing creativity of capitalism. Marx and Engels of course did, and said so in The Communist Manifesto. The conservative critics (Dickens being one) could see only the ugliness of industrial cities. They said, "Isn't it awful that people don't live in rose-covered cottages any more?" The progressive critics were often trapped in a zero-sum view of the economy. Even the last edition of Mill's Principles (1871; he was by then very much a progressive) sees the future as one of tiny gains, from free trade for example, and minor improvements from education. He and other socialists did not see that the working class would be enriched by capitalism. In the century that followed the places that adopted capitalism would grow in income per head by a factor of twenty. In short, capitalism was the salvation of the poor. It is unhappy, though understandable, that artists in the 19th century didn't grasp such a big truth; it is scandalous when artists in the 21st century haven't yet grasped it.
JA: Why do you think it is the responsibility of artists, or aesthetics in general, to somehow represent this view (or any other)? Here, again, I am interested in the issue of representation in and through art itself. Part of what this book is about is the interchange or interaction between aesthetics and economics, economic ideas, and economic representations. So, there are many ways to talk about the forms of interchange between art and economics. When I hear you critical of this anti-capitalist representation, I'm interested, first, in figuring out how you think the art "works" to be anti-capitalist and, second, if you think there's some obligation on the part of artists because of their class background, etc. to represent what you consider what you consider to be a "truer" or "fairer" vision.
DM. I do think there is an obligation. I have a sense that one is put in a false position by not speaking up for the known virtues of ones own class. Yes, the vices, too. But both, the point being that one has more reliable insights into ones own class than into someone else's. The artistic project of Robert Frost or of the English novelist Arnold Bennett, or in our own time John Updike, is to represent people as engaging in business as people, not as cardboard cutouts of The Evil Capitalist. Artists have an ideological responsibility to be truthful about the society around them. The avant-garde in art since the middle of the nineteenth-century has been persuaded that being truthful means to attack, attack, attack. The attack would be less unbalanced if the avant-garde knew a thing about economics. It commonly doesn't---consider for instance the monetary crankiness of Ezra Pound. Art has an ethical role (we would hardly be having this conversation if we both didn't think it did). If an artist, even a historian crafting his book, tells fairy tales about the racial history of the Arians, they are ethically bad, as pretty as they may be. If we tell stories again and again about how corrupting it is to participate in an economy, we're going to undermine the ethical foundations of capitalism. None of this was in doubt, incidentally, until the aesthetic movement of the late 19th century. No-one before then thought art was anything else than a carrier of values for society. It's a peculiarly modernist idea that you can, and indeed should, do art in an ethical vacuum, with no constraint of justice or truth. "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book," declared Oscar Wilde in 1981. "Books are well written, or badly written." Well, no.
JA: What, by implication of your view, is your criticism of socialist realism in art?
DM: I don't have a non-contextualist criticism of it. In fact, I'm a big fan of Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, who were attacked by the New York School and Clement Greenberg in particular, as fascists (which by the way was ridiculous). But what I object to in context of socialist realism is that it was enforced by the state.
JA: So that's really your criticism. Your criticism is not so much that it's political art, because based on what you've said, you're in favor of political art.
DM: Yes, I'm in favor of political art. Most people are. Art is political, and art that claims to be non-political is often enough being political through the back door. For example T. S. Eliot's poetry, as we've come to understand through essentially progressive criticism of the last twenty years, are loaded with politics, much of it nasty. I do not see that as an excuse to not read Eliot. Diane Arbus, to take another example, is a hideous photographer because of her "politics" about marginal people. Her "A young man with curlers at home on West 20th Street, N.Y.C., 1966" is an assault on transgendered people. I am willing to listen to critics who unlike me actually know something about photography instruct me on the technical excellence of Arbus' work. But I don't want them to get away with giving her politics a pass. Like Eliot's, it's nasty.
JA: Don't you think there's a tension here between two things, both of which you value. One is the idea of the artist having the freedom to represent in whatever ways they want to represent, not being forced by the state. The other is that you feel strongly that they ought to represent according to particular moral strictures. How do you make sense of this conflict?
DM: That's what I meant by saying I have no non-contextual criticism of socialist realism, or of the Ashcan School, or of social criticism in art. If people are persuaded, non-coercively that it's a fine thing for Diane Arbus to turn her subjects into pathetic objects, then I merely wish to try to persuade them they are mistakem. Keep the state out of it. I have no wish to censor Arbus. I merely want people to stop liking her stuff.
JA: How about the idea of the abolition of art? If art is so decidedly anti-bourgeois or anti-capitalist, would you like to see its demise? Or what's the value of art for you?
DM: No, that's Plato's view. Because the artists in his view can't be trusted to tell people the right things, we should abolish or exclude them from the ideal state. It's the communist model; it's the fascist model. It's an awful thing, and as a gentle anarchist I cannot approve. No I don't want to abolish art. ***Art flourishes. And I include in art all the arts; I include film and pop music, and country music, and vernacular architecture-all the ornamental and story-telling arts. And they all have ethical content. Here I follow Wayne Booth, who is not a fashionable critic, but is a very good one, who writes on ethical criticism. Art has consequences. If you place the Marquis de Sade in the hands of a twelve-year old boy, you may do damage.
JM: I'm interested in knowing what kind of damage. We might disagree on what the damage is that might be done.
DM: But there'd be an influence. There's a corresponding problem. You've put your finger on the problem in my way of thinking. I want artists to be ideologically correct, on my side, but I don't want to push them around. But, there is a problem on the "art for art's sake" side, which says that the artist must be, above all, autonomous and free. Art, as Oscar Wilde said famously, is neither skilled or unskilled, it's not ethically good or bad. And the paradox there is that either art has influence, or it doesn't. If it doesn't have any influence, then we needn't bother to inquire into the connection between art and political ideology; if it just doesn't influence anything, and then we can forget about it. If it does, it has, then, an effect for good or evil, and it's not irrelevant to look into its evil effects.
JA: I want to go back and also forward to the issue of representation itself. Because art can have an influence, and it can be influential, but how it influences is more to the point. We can have very simple models of influence, or we can have other models in which its more mediated or complicated, and in which the effects are dependent upon audience and many different things.
JA: It strikes me that you place incredible responsibility in the hands of the artist, and you present the idea that the canvases or the texts can be read fairly straight-forward. Yet, in your own work, especially as you borrowed from or worked with the ideas of people like Rorty, the idea that language mirrors a reality so that there's a transparency, is very much called into question. It seems to me that you have a strong sense of the representations of the anti-capitalists or anti-bourgeois, and there aren't many places yet where you are talking about seeing contradictions, or doubling-back, or aporias, or so forth.
DM: I've been surprised sometimes when I've read with care anti-capitalist texts, as I see them. Because I'm often surprised to find that they aren't as anti-capitalist as I felt they were. And that's not terribly surprising-I shouldn't have been surprised-because if you're Arthur Miller, you're a very good playwright. I don't like all his plays, but I like most of them. You're very comfortable with the complexities in life. So, when you read Death of a Salesman closely, you find that Arthur Miller is not anti-capitalist in any simple sense. It's not just "tractors are good, capitalism is bad" kind of art. When I read, to go back almost a century before that, William Dean Howells' The Rise of Silas Lapham, again I was expecting an anti-capitalist tirade, and instead I got a pretty sophisticated picture of what happens in the business world. When you read the first great successful book by Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks. . .
JA: Yes, I was going to ask you about that.
DM: The same thin; it's not just an anti-capitalist tirade. But, the closest to a straight-forward anti-capitalist tirade is Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt. But what really bothers me-and this comes to your point about reading and audience-is how these texts are read. So, I think perhaps I should make my appeal more to the public who reads these as straight-forwardly anti-capitalist, instead of to the people who produce the images. A splendid example of this is Grant Wood's painting, which is held by the Art Institute of Chicago, and for which by the way he was paid four hundred dollars, which is another issue in capitalism in art, American Gothic,which is taken by people, which is read by people, as a savage criticism of the middle class in the mid-West. And, I agree there's no such thing as a correct reading of a work of art, it's an object that we use for whatever task we have in mind. So, I suppose what I'm objecting to is not so much the artists as the users of the art.
JA: This shift is an important one, Because use is also a complicated process, how they're read.
DM: One can't control how you're used or read. As Marx famously said, "I am not a Marxist."
JA: So, reading, therefore, is a very important component of your concern.
DM: So, this clarifies my thinking on this issue. Because there's a rhetoric of art in capitalism which is the responsibility of the speaker, but the hermeneutics is the responsibility of the critic or the reader.
JA: One criticism that's been made of modernism and its connection to capitalism, rightly or wrongly, is that there's a connection between realist strategies in representations and a transparency of the capitalist economy. Capitalism has often been portrayed as naturalistic, a force of nature.
DM: Yes. It's real.
JA: It's real. That's exactly right. That capitalism is real. And the anti- or postmodernist criticism is on many different levels. One is the critique of capitalism "in-itself" as an economic system, though this is not a special preserve (if at all) of postmodernism. But certainly there's been an attack on representation and the notion of the real: naturalistic or realistic conceptions of representation. So, is it possible that some avant-garde art, which is in some ways anti-capitalist, but is at the same time promoting more complicated notions of reading, has some value to people like yourself?
DM: Well, I think you've got your chronology wrong. Because I think the anti-realism is a late move in Post-Impressionism. We can speak of the career of Picasso in this way. In poetry, the breakdown of semantics happens in the early twentieth-century. In music, the attachment to conventional harmonies-at least in academic or avant-garde music-is first attacked harshly by Stravinsky, and then in the nineteen-twenties by other people. So, as Virginia Woolf said, "on or about December, 1910, human nature changed." So I think it's much earlier that non-representation takes the stage in the arts. Although, of course, I agree with anyone that says that representation is phony in itself. Since, what does it mean that music represents something? But, the ambition of all art to become like music is an early twentieth-century obsession, and is not commonly associated with pro-capitalism, but instead with anti-capitalism. Picasso, for example, was all his life a socialist.
JA: But, I'm agreeing with you here. I'm saying that a lot of the critique of representation and the movement toward anti- or non-representational art-I'm thinking about Russian Constructivists and Suprematists and even Italian Futurism. . .
DM: Yes, Italian Futurism was the first one.
JA: . . . that in some ways, there was a double or interwoven project. There was a sense that the world-the capitalist world-had to be rethought. That many of the commonplace and seemingly natural, obvious ways in which capitalism was seen to work, according to ideologies that promoted those ideas, needed to be aborted or at least confronted. And one way that some of these early revolutionary or avant-garde artists thought was to call into question representation, to call into question the smoothness of language, the continuity of language, the continuity of images. To break up images. Part of it was to mirror-some of them thought they were mirroring transformations that were occurring in capitalism, capturing notions of speed, capturing notions of movement, fragmentation, disruption.
DM: As in Cubism.
JA: Yeah, Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase. But others, or even some of the same people, also thought they were making a rupture in the realm of image, language, text, with earlier or traditional forms of representation, and they saw themselves engaged in that project alongside the anti-capitalist project. Now, some of that disruption, I assume, is important to you. When we first started, I wondered if you wanted to go back to still life, to the Dutch golden age. How do you want to rescue that?
DM: I don't think that free verse makes free societies. I don't think that realism is bourgeois. I don't think that styles in art have any necessary or even convenient connection with political programs. For example, let's take Hopper, to speak of another painting in the Art Institute, Nighthawks, which, interestingly, is these days starting to edge out American Gothic as the cliché piece of art that everyone has to have, which is an interesting comment on our times.
JA: But, you understand that.
DM: No, I don't.
JA: Part of it is that the rural ethic and image, compared to the urban diner, seems remote-the fifties are closer to us, and not just in time, than the twenties or thirties.
DM. Indeed. But, one could take the Ashcan School of American art, of which Hopper, I think, is thought to be a part of, you can take that as having a politics. An anti-capitalist politics. It's awful, these people are so sad; there is not even an entrance or an exit to the diner. It hasn't got a door. You have no idea how these people got in and out of there.
JA: (laughing) No way out.
DM: No way out of it. But, you can also appropriate that image in a, well, more positive way, or as a pro-urban statement.
JA: Do you think the same thing is true of Dutch art in the golden age?
JA: That is, that it can be read against the way you read it. For example, I reviewed a forthcoming article for Rethinking Marxism in which the author, Iona Singh, makes the argument that Vermeer, that the nature of what he was doing, that his particular use of material "ground" was decidedly anti-bourgeois. Her argument is that there have been attempts to make Vermeer this great icon of art, and to see in Vermeer notions of spirituality, light, and so forth. In her view, Vermeer disrupts the whole bourgeois language and imagery of the time, just by virtue of the way in which she describes the actual paint that Vermeer used and how he used it. She traces his use of paint through Vermeer's connection to the craft guilds of the time, the fact that he had real knowledge of the ground he was using, and that the ground he used produces certain effects; she argues that the effect that this ground produces is a much more distancing and critical effect than that which was used by de Hooch, and others.
DM: I can agree with that. But, I think it is a perfect illustration of the hermeneutic responsibilities of our times. Dutch art of the golden age was grotesquely misunderstood in the nineteenth century because they hadn't worked out its semiotics. And at the time, Dutch artists had an extremely elaborate code in which they said things. And they were just saying things: Greed is bad. Yeah. They said that a lot. You're all going to die. You know that? You may think the surface of this thing-all there are are these beautifully rendered surfaces--you think that's nice looking, but, you know, that shows you're going to die. But, that's not a decisive argument. Their intent at the time is not a decisive argument for our appropriation of the art. Now, there I agree. But, the author you mention has got to understand, I hope she does, but maybe she doesn't, that she's appropriating Vermeer. She's not necessarily uncovering his intentions, although they may be there. And I can see what she means that there's a kind of odd lack of sympathy in his paintings, which is very unsettling. You take a contrast with someone like Franz Hals, who, regardless of who he's painting, is amused. Early Dickens.
JA: They look like your friendly, eccentric uncle, aunt, grandmother. . .
DM: It's very much like The Pickwick Papers. Oh, they're so amusing. And, this one's a prostitute, and this one's a soldier, and this one's a blah-blah-blah. Whereas, there's something almost cold, without being-it's hard to describe. . . It's unsympathetic. Don't you see it?
JA: Yeah, there's something very defamiliarized about it. Something like an alienation effect.
DM: Exactly. The woman getting the letter from her servant. Ah, yeah, on one level with her rich clothing, we're obviously to take her as a bourgeoise. Saying, oh yeah, she's having an assignation or something. And then, we're put one step away from being sympathetic. And you can call it anti-bourgeois. But, look, here's another way of putting my point that's even weaker, so to speak. I'm annoyed that there isn't as much discussion as there ought to be about the economy in art. That the sheer fact that middle-class life-and working-class life, for that matter-is not on the agenda strikes me as a bad thing.
JA: This is exactly where I wanted to turn to. I want to ask about two aspects of what you have just mentioned. One is, I want to know your thoughts about how you think you either use or interpret art as a way to think through and communicate economic ideas. What sorts of things do you find valuable? To what extent is art a place where economic discourse arises and/or economic discourse is itself furthered?
DM: I'll answer this question before you get to any more. I've become increasingly interested in this question. The problem is that I'm an ignoramus about most arts. I know something about poetry and a smattering about the English novel. And that's about it for any serious understanding or art on my part. But, I have tried in the last 10 years or so to bring art into my courses. I gave a course to undergraduates in the Business School at the University of Iowa about 5 years ago where we did American history through novels, and it worked pretty well. We started with Benjamin Franklin's autobiography, which is a novel of sorts, and we ended with Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres, which is the plot of King Lear in terms of large commercial farming in northwestern Iowa. And I want to bring the English Department and the Economic Department into some sort of serious conversation (which I am sure is the purpose of this book). I then taught a graduate course at the University of Illinois a year and a half ago which was again a more sophisticated confrontation of art and economics. For example, we did a lot on Frost, who was a very economistic poet-he's among the few who are, most of them aren't.
JA: I was going to ask you about Ezra Pound.
DM: Yes, Pound. I don't know Pound very well. I can't judge Pound. He's very economistic, I guess. I'm intending to do an anthology of serious English-language literature with economic content. So, a chapter from The Grapes of Wrath, which was the book that got me into economics, or actually, is what made me become a socialist economist. Or the first scene of The Merchant of Venice, which is about portfolio diversification. Then things like Frost's Two Roads Diverged in a Yellow Wood, which you can use to make the point that there are opportunity costs in life, that there are choices you make. And Death of a Salesman, and so forth. But, what's odd is that it's rather hard to do that anthology. If you want to do an anthology about the theme of love in English literature, you would have an incredible excess. If you wanted to do an anthology of God in English poetry, you could fill up a library. If you wanted to do an anthology on women, or on marriage. They've been done. And on baseball. Or cricket. No problem. The sea. The Oxford Book of fill-in-your-favorite-topic. It's trivial. Now, try to do an Oxford Book on the economy. Or an Oxford Book of middle-class, captialst life. It's very hard to do. Which kind of makes my point.
JA: I want to see if I can make a dent in the last statement you just made. I have many friends, and I'm sure you do as well, who teach courses in a variety of cultural forms, and teach economics or economy through those forms.
DM: Yeah, absolutely.
JA: In fact, the interesting thing is how much material they're able to accumulate. Many films. Many books. Many different genres. An example of this is a project that David Ruccio is working on at the moment which he calls Economic Representations, and he had a conference, a mini-conference, at Bellagio this year which involved Judith Mehta and Julie Graham, but also Evan Watkins, who's in English, and others, in which they discussed different kinds of representations of economy and economics. David's project of the past year or two has been collecting references, that people supply him, in music, novels, film, art, etc. He can tell you himself that the list keeps exploding. Now, part of the issue is, in addition to familiarity with cultural forms that none of us has-and one of the good things about community is that you can create a communal memory or knowledge base. . .
DM: (laughing) It's called free exchange, Jack. It's called trade.
JA: (laughing). That's one way to call it . It's also called giving. The gift.
DM: We have the same views on that.
JA: Maybe some of our difference in vision, if there is one-maybe on the question of what constitutes economy, about economy in a text, etc.--is in the form of what exactly you are looking for?
DM: I think what I'm looking for talk about people at work. And, I see too little of it. Whereas if you took a broader view of the economy, you'd see that any representation of place in the economy would count. I would say that Van Gogh-he's got a very nice painting of a bridge that he saw in the south of France, and it reminded him of the brugge at home, and it's a very nice painting-you can say, ah yes, this is part of the transportation system, Van Gogh is talking about the economy. Well, no. I guess not. He's talking about an artifact. That doesn't make it about economic activity, as I see it.
JA: How about representations of money? Do you see that as economic?
DM: Well, yes, I guess I do. If in some Dutch painting of the 17th century. If it's a painting about some money-changer, if there are some coins on his table, and there are such paintings, that indeed is about economic activity. And if you had a novel about a banker, that'd be the kind of thing I'd be looking for. Though I'm kind of conflicted about this, though I'm not sure I have to be too concerned about it. Here's a fault with my way of looking at the world. Which is, how do you handle housework?
JA: I was going to ask you about things that signify economy to you, and those that don't.
DM: I certainly view housework as part of the economy. There's that wonderful Vermeer painting-since he only did 35 paintings, you can be fairly exact-it's his only painting of an exterior of a building where the maids or someone are sweeping the sidewalk. And that surely counts as representations of the economy. But, then you have to ask yourself about bucolic poems about imaginary shepherds or Orpheus-Orfeo, the opera by Verdi, about these imaginary shepherds-is that about economy? My answer there is no, it's not about the economy. It's about song, about panpipes, about sexuality, much more than about being a shepherd. So, I don't want to draw the boundary too generously. And you can ask why. Why draw it the way I want to draw it? And I think where you draw it has ideological effects. I can pick an easy one, where we completely agree; if all you say that counts as economics and the economy is all that comes into the marketplace, then you're going to ignore housework, and as an economic historian I will point out to you that you're ignoring about half of the production of national income before 1800! And you're really going to misunderstand what people do, what Marshall called the "ordinary business of life." You're going to completely misconstrue it-you'll be way off. So, there's an example. But, an extremely postmodern sensibility would say, well everything's about the economy. But that's unhelpful and has the ideological-I'm not sure quite what ideological effect it has, but I'll bet you it has one.
JA: Here's a problem I have on this point. It has to do with whether or not things can be read literally. One thing you've said is that you want to keep bounded in a particular way what constitutes representations of economy or not. Your examples are quite literal. Yet, you also recognize codes. You recognize that something stands in for other things. Since you've written on metaphor, you understand this better than all of us. So, I'm interested in whether you can expand your notion of how to read texts, artworks, etc. in terms of economy even when there aren't the obvious signs of economy. Part of this has to do with the question of what's meant by economy, but also what would be the translation practices-like any metaphorical practice, how do you move from, for example, seeing two people holding hands to some comment on factory production. I don't know how you would do such a thing, but I'm interested in this.
DM: I could feature this (as we used to say). I understand what you mean, Jack. And I'm going to try to do that in a course I'm going to teach next spring called something like "Economics for the Advanced Students in the Humanities," where I hope they will teach me how to do what has been called the "new economic criticism"-Martha Woodmansee at Case Western has sponsored this, and I was involved with it to a degree, and Susan Feiner, and you and David. And, yes, one could do an economic criticism that goes beyond the usual suspects. For example, let's talk about Jane Austen's novels. If you think about the economy the way I do and the way you do, you notice that there are no domestic servants in the novels. They're there because someone has to be cleaning up these houses and serving stuff. But, there is no single character who's ever given voice who is an ordinary servant. It's quite striking. And that is a comment, from my point of view-- it's a downgrading of domestic production. Which, by the way, Jane Austen herself in her life was very heavily involved in. She was sewing all the time, as all women of her class were constantly doing; they sewed--it was their work. But it doesn't appear in her novels. And certainly what the lower classes do-from your point of view, it's a class thing; it's an occlusion of a whole social class, so part of the structure of society is being ignored. From a neoclassical point of view, national income is being measured incorrectly; from a Marxist point of view, the class structure of society is being ignored. Even though Jane Austen's novels are not about the economy-and this is I think is a fruitful critical tool-the way they are not about the economy is a representation.
JA: That's a very important point. In many ways, some critics-certainly some postmodern critics-have taught us to read absences, and the presences in the absences, and also the absences in presence.
DM: In the old vocabulary, "in between the lines."
JA: Yes. A lot of the precedent for that is Freudian. There is an incredibly developed and sophisticated psychoanalytic literature about culture. People read paintings, texts, etc., and out of a table sitting in the middle of the room, they'll describe the entire psychical make-up of the owners or the people who inhabit the room, and so forth. I'm interested in how or even if this can be done for economics. Some people have asked me in why I want to do this. They've said that this kind of move-analogous to the Freudian one--is very imperialistic; it reduces everything (in this case, to the determinations of the economic content). And, I'm not interested in producing this reduction in the form of THE economic reading, or to say that economic content is dominant. But, I am concerned about, like you are, the invisibility, or the presumed invisibility, of the economy.
DM: Let me jump in here. Look, my main complaint about modern art since 1848 is precisely the occlusion of men-at-work, and most particularly middle-class men-at-work. It hasn't occluded the women as much. In fact, it's given them a voice that they didn't have before, and this is one of the great developments in all kinds of art in the last century and a half. Largely because women have started to participate as artists, the middle-class women and their work have not been occluded, but have been brought into the light. As I say, some people are brought into the light, and others have been cast into the shadow. The attempts in the last century and a half to bring the proletariat into the light of art are impressive and good, but you can almost say there's an economy of this-- there's an opportunity cost of casting the bosses and managers into the dark.
JA: It sounds like what you value is a connection between what I'll call the politics of representation and representation as it works in the texts. There's a sense in what you've said that there is an importance of representing middle-class men and women because there's a politics of representation. You want them represented in the consciousness and the politics of the time. It's the same thing as people saying, let's bring housework into the light, or the proletariat into the light.. Now, you understand that there's also questioning about whether it works quite that way; that is, what is the connection between political representation and also representation in and through art, texts, and so forth?
DM: My view, of course, is a standard liberal view, in the European sense of the word. You know, pluralism, let's hear all the voices. And it's the same view I have of all politics. It's a kind of a wishy-washy, "let's hear what he has to say" kind of view. And what I don't like about the politics of art in the last century and a half is the way it has cast into the dark the lives of these people who I regard as forces for good, namely, the bourgeoisie.
JA: So, you do have the sense that artistic or aesthetic representations really have an effect on constituting people as political subjects.
DM: Yes, and you people of the left agree with me on this. You're very emphatic that if there aren't any blacks in novels, if the servants vanish, if the proletariat is not personalized, you say, wait a second, what the hell's going on here?
JA: It's an interesting problem. On the one hand, sometimes, I think it's important to call up what those silence or absences "mean"-how you can read them as reflections of a way of portraying an activity or sphere of life in which all of the blood is let out by virtue of there being no servants, nobody takes out the garbage, nobody shits, nobody does any of the things that go on in daily life. And this gives us a certain conception. So you can read about the nobility or landed gentry as though, somehow, magically, everything happens, and that it has no connection to these lives. On the other hand, there's the problem of what these representations actually do when they do occur. Your comment reflects it. Other than counting skin color or gender, what exactly has this achieved, what are its political effects? Sometimes, as you know, being represented can be far worse than not being represented.
DM: There's no question. In Hollywood, before the 1960s, blacks in the United States were represented like that famous servant in Gone With the Wind.
JA: Butterfly McQueen. Or Stepandfetchit.
DM: Or Topsy, in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Though, in Uncle Tom's Cabin there's enough time to develop these characters, while in films, they're only quick cliches, and that's it.
JA: Which is why sometimes representation is a terrible thing. You know, please don't represent me.
DM: That's right. Please keep me out of this. And, once again, that's my complaint about art during the last century and a half, this anti-capitalist art. That is, it has represented the rich, or business people, or the bourgeoisie, but puh-leaze stop representing them that way. If the only way you can think about a realtor is in terms of George Babbitt, then admitting that there might be lots of people who are not too far from that harsh, moot parody. . . I just wish Sinclair Lewis hadn't written Babbitt. It's an awfully good piece of art-A-minus art, just as art-and it had a terrible effect on people.
JA: It does allow, though, people to have a counterdiscourse.
DM: If there is a counterdiscourse. I guess that's where I'm locating my complaints, as we've figured out. I'm not actually complaining about the artist, though I think I have artist-specific complaints. I think there's a problem in the Romantic vision of the artist, which has persisted down to the present. So that the purpose of art is to insult the viewer or the reader. Well, huh? Why would that be the purpose of art? It's certainly not how people before the Romantic Movement thought of what they did. Absolutely not how they thought. So, it's not in the nature of Art-capital A--that it has to be insulting to the main class that supports it. But, we agree that the real problem occurs in the popularization of these views, in the newspaperization of these views. When anti-bourgeois feelings are naturalized, that's the dangerous point. When it becomes an insult to be called middle-class-"oh, you're so middle-class"-that's where thought has stopped. And it's not that people are objecting to the middle-class on any sensible, thought-out, principled, scientific, evidentiary grounds. But just because they've been told, they think, by Picasso that they should sneer at the middle-class.
JA: Are you ever nervous about art exhibitions or bookshows, or any kind of connection between corporations, money, or any aspect of what you consider capitalism and art.? Are you ever concerned?
DM: Not particularly. The first Impressionist exhibition took place in the strikingly modern industrial/commercial building in Paris, not very far from the entrance to the Louvre (I think). Close to where they had the Academic Show. A couple of floors of this building were loaned to the Impressionists (they did not call themselves that yet) by a commercial photographer. So, this was a commercial building, a bourgeois enterprise, that subsidized the beginning of Impression. I don't see any problem with that. Art has always had patrons.
JA: This is one area where you and I agree. I don't have the view that art is degraded by its connection with capitalism. I also don't view, in the other direction, that art is degraded by its connection with the socialist state. That's where you and I may disagree.
DM: Well, here's where I draw the line. It depends on what you mean by a connection. The problem with states is that they have, or claim, a monopoly of violence. So, when art is connected, say, with the Mafia, and the Mafia goes around enforcing some kinds of art, that's where I draw the line. That violence.
JA: What about the artistic practice itself? The fact that it is art, that it is constructed in a particular way, the fact that its meanings are not contained within itself. As you said earlier, you write a text and you are not in control of the effects of the text. I understand that you might object to the state and the state intervention in art, but then there are the products of that art, the artifacts. Yes, one could treat them disdainfully, one could see them as shit because they are produced under the Stalinist regime, or one can treat them as texts as any texts that have certain political connections and ideological connections, but that also has possibilities within them, so then not all one meaning.
DM: I actually heard someone make a similar point. I found it somewhat shocking and even embarrassing. Because, she went on and on about the recuperation of Soviet art. I'm a little bit inclined to say, ok, how about the. . .
JA: Yeah, I understand, the recuperation of fascist art.
DM: So then you start wondering, well, ok, maybe there's something in Pound's anti-Semitic works that comes up to the standard of his early imagist poems, but. . . But, but, but. Though it makes me uncomfortable, I understand it, and after all, a lot of art was created under hideous patronage. We look at the Colloseum, and admire it, say, oh what a lovely, wonderful building. But, of course, its purpose was the staged killing of human beings. Yet, still we look at it.
JA: Yeah, oh my goodness. If you think about the kind of patrons who made possible Italian Renaissance art. Goodness gracious. Including the Church itself.
DM: Yes, these were a bunch of nasty guys and gals. They were not pleasant. The Church itself, which was burning people at the stake. You know, what they used to do to the Jews in Spain. They would torture them to convert, and if they converted, they would kill them instantly because then their souls were ready for heaven. Heads, you lose. Tails, you lose.
JA: What's interesting, though, is that a differentiation can be made. I'm really not interested in the political project of recuperating Nazi art. But, it's very different to then argue that the art itself is a simple reflection of the politics of the period. It's not that it's divorced-look, postmodern philosophy has done a lot to recuperate the work of Heidegger and Nietzsche. There's been a lot of work done to accomplish that.
DM: Particularly Heidegger. That's right. I think that this stuff bears the traces of its political origins. Yeats, who I admire very much, was essentially a conservative and was hostile to the errors of 1916, and very questionable in all kinds of ways. So, it bears that trace. What does one conclude from it? You ought to watch out for it; I guess you oughtn't to be naïve-"the Jew squats on the windowsill," which is a line from a poem by Eliot-about what that means. It doesn't have stable meanings. It's not that there's just one meaning to that. And it may be that we come to a point where it doesn't matter to us, in a thousand years, and we don't care.
JA: I'm interested in the word you used: the idea of the trace. The trace of a time, a politics, whatever. This goes back to our discussion before. That works can carry the trace of an economy. Then, if you believe that, how do you read traces? Which I why I said earlier that what seems obvious as a representation can be very different from tracing representations. I bring up this issue because I often find it very disconcerting to think of the opposition between art produced under conditions of freedom, which bears the trace of, I don't know what, freedom?, and art produced under conditions of tyranny, which bears the trace of tyranny. There's something very disturbing that it's really this clear-cut. That one can read freedom from the conditions of its production. Because the conditions of its production, as you know in economics, aren't the product. The product is different from its conditions of production. They're not entirely separated, but the product is something that has its own dynamic and life.
DM: I completely agree. The main example of this that I'm emphasizing in my book on bourgeois virtue and elsewhere is indeed the free choice of extremely free men-especially men-in France in the 19th century, and in England especially in the 20th century, and in the United States in the 20th century, and so forth-to oppose capitalism. There's a long discussion--you can find it in Schumpeter, and in Daniel Bell, and maybe before--about the cultural contradictions of capitalism. That it may well be that free countries, and capitalist countries-and I accept that these may not be one and the same thing-produce the art that undermines them. I think art is extremely powerful. I don't think it's just ornament.
JA: We don't have the same view of capitalists. Though I don't think it matters that much to me about the people called capitalists as much as the process itself. I'm not interested in the vilification of capitalists. I find that living in a culture of personification and individuality, too much is attributed to the person, for good or evil.
DM: So, Gates. We hate Bill Gates.
JA: Yeah, that's not interesting to me, to hate Bill Gates. But, if you were a Marxist today. . .
DM: Perish the thought!
JA: . . .you might think of capitalism in terms of its class process, as one in which what Marxists have always called exploitation takes place. So, you wouldn't be concerned with the representations of middle-class men qua men, but you might be very concerned with the effects of what you consider the effects of an exploitative production process. Sometimes those juxtapositions are more interesting, which is the juxtaposition of the perfectly well-meaning, well-living bourgeois, and then the possibility that the people that work in those workplaces experience something that we can call exploitation.
DM: But, there's a very deep problem here-well, not that deep. And that is we don't have the artistic means to make those points about unintended consequences. You can take a Marxist view where the unintended consequences of perfectly nice behavior is the reproduction of class relationships and exploitation. Or you can take the cheerful capitalist view that the unintended consequence of perfectly nasty behavior is that the workers are well-paid, that national income goes up, and everyone's happy.
JA: There could even be profit sharing!
DM: Indeed, that's what the capitalist promise is. That, in the end, all profit is shared. And here, in my view, is one of the big failures of prediction in Classical Economics, of which Marx is an example. They believed that the rentiers would engorge the national income, when in fact almost from the moment they started to make this assertion, the share of rent of various kinds of national income has been falling, so that now it's extremely small. But, you see what I'm saying. There's an artistic problem. You have to personalize to make it interesting. A nice example of this is The Grapes of Wrath, which is a very good book. I reread it a few years ago on my way out to California--started in Oklahoma with some friends. As I drove, I listened to The Grapes of Wrath, and a thrilling moment was when I crossed into California at a town called Needles at the same time on the tape the Joads were crossing into California, so this was great. Steinbeck tries to do two things in the book, and he alternates chapters. He'll have a chapter of the story of the Joads-and that's what a novelist can do-and then he tries, interspersed with this, chapters, so to speak, of a social scientific character, as though he's at a great height, looking down on the American economy, seeing the great movement from the Dust Bowl to California. And the effective parts of the book are the ones that are personal, and the ineffective parts of the book are the ones that try to do social science. So, it's a real problem in a painting or in a movie to get these abstractions across. I suppose that what I'm saying is that art is emblematic. Have you ever seen "The Fountainhead"? Is that the one with Gary Cooper as the architect (I think it's "The Fountainhead")? It's a very well-done film qua film. Well, Ayn Rand was in control of it artistically, which is quite shocking since it's very unusual in Hollywood. But she was a very successful novelist by then. She insisted putting in all the speech-making at the end. You may recall that Gary Cooper gives a very long speech, something like a 5-minute speech. So, they had to handle the abstraction because she forced them to put it in. But, it's not what movies are good at. So, there's a problem. Your point and my point are hard to make through art.
JA: Here's a problem. When I watch a movie, most movies, about Nazis in Germany, Nazis are evil, vile--every human failing in the bourgeois imagination exists in the Nazis. Everyone is such a personification of evil that it's overwhelming. It makes it very easy to think that one could always tell a Nazi, and it absolves you from ever seeing your own actions as part of a movement. That one could, in fact, flip a switch for an electric chair, or open up the gas, and that one could also at the same be a good father or husband, or so forth.
DM: And, alas, we "know" that's untrue. The banality of evil.
JA: But I find these representations extremely problematic-your notion that personification is necessary or useful has an ideological effect. It allows you to detach yourself. There's no complicity.
DM: I agree with you completely. I've written on that very point in the early chapters in my latest book. I've written about the word evil. If evil is just about a parody of face-Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-then it's very simple. Then, of course, "we're not evil."
JA: Yeah, it just can be read. It's a mirror. A transparency.
DM: Whereas if you drive carelessly and heroically on the highway, you don't intend any bad, but you may still cause a terrible accident. This marvelous book whose title is "Hitler's Willing Executioners." You don't see your own suburban evil. We agree on that. But, I'm making a technical point. Perhaps I'm wrong. What the arts are skilled at is precisely what we economists often say, "oh that's just an anecdote" as though anecdotes don't have any power over us.
JA: Sometimes it's possible-it has been possible in 20th century art and theatre, for example-to produce what Brecht called "alienation effects." In which, it's exactly the opposite. One doesn't identify with character or personality, but one maintains a kind of distance, and this distance has a certain pedagogical purpose, etc.
DM: Yeah, but he's a bad example. Since he was so consistently anti-capitalist. You know, the big, fat capitalist with a sign on him that says "fat capitalist" is how he does it. There's a point that Stanley Fish makes about Paradise Lost, which is to the point here. We are invited to be sympathetic with Satan in Paradise Lost, and the Romantics all said, from Blake on, "oh, Satan is such a wonderful character!" Milton, as Blake said, must be of Satan's party. Here's this guy who thought he was a Puritan, but actually was a devil-worshipper. Because the most attractive personality in his book is the devil. But, as Stan points out, and other scholars do too, that's part of the game. The game is to get you to like the devil, and then see through the devil. So that you have the experience. That's why Stan's famous book on this was called Surprised by Sin. Because you're surprised that you are participating in the sin of pride, that is the chief sin, or the only sin, of Satan.
JA: I would want to hold on to that kind of reading for capitalists. I'm comfortable with your criticism because I'm not moved by demonizations of capitalists, or of middle-class life. I am however much more interested in the effects of capitalism, in what it is as a process, what its effects are, and how these play out. I don't think that the effects are all one way. No simple story can tell what these effects are. I'm not much disturbed-some of my colleagues may be disturbed by-sympathetic portrayals of capitalists. It even intensifies my point.
DM: Yes, then it's ironic. A horrible example of this is the complicity of the Dutch people in the extermination of Dutch Jews. And it's precisely because, unlike the Belgians, they had regular bourgeois habits, whereas the Belgians to this day are very disorganized, seen as impulsive-there are a whole lot of jokes about Southern Dutch and Northern Dutch regarding this difference. And that North Holland tendency to be obedient, punctual, careful resulted in the extermination of two-thirds of the Jewish population of Holland, whereas the sloppy, anti-statist-because they'd been in the Spanish empire for so long-traditions of the South Netherlands saved two-thirds of the Jews.
JA: Yeah, I like my representations to have this kind of irony. I also like the complicity. I like the fact that I can both detach, but also that there's not sufficient distance. I can't think that these are evil people and I'm not capable of this. Sometimes I'm much more persuaded, and feel more passionately, about my politics and art, or my views of economics and art, when I think that, sure, I'm capable of that. When I think I'm not outside, on the one hand, and on the other hand, I am outside and can see through.
DM: You know, there's an interesting point that you make. That sensibility-the emphasis on irony-is very modern, and in some ways, very postmodern. There's a kind of naïve view, as we regard it now, being belated, being late in the history of this art, that we can be ironic. There's a famous statement by Umberto Eco describing postmodernism in which he says, "a man who says to his girlfriend a sentence that could come out of a Barbara Cartland novel, like 'I love you madly,' will not be appreciated. Whereas, if he says, "as Barbara Cartland says, 'I love you madly'"-that works in a postmodern sense." Quotation works.
JA: This calls attention to the different levels of representation. There are always displacements that keep occurring in representation. Irony is one form of displacement.
DM: Yeah, but there are all kinds of displacement. There were some kinds of displacements into the realms of utopia, which is very common in poetry and painting where you clean up what happens. Then there are displacements into the world of symbol. And so forth. I find it somewhat tiresome about the postmodern condition of art that it's always into irony, everything's about quotation. Though I do like the Washington Library, which has these quotations of-quote, quote-Gothic, and-quote, quote-rustication circa 1900-quote, quote-and you see them nudging you.
JA: Deirdre, let me move to another topic. You and I were both trained, though very differently, as economists. One thing I've been concerned about is the idea that a discipline contains its own inventions. And that's the only place to look at new ideas.
DM: There, we completely agree. This has been a catastrophe.
JA: Do you have examples, from your own life experience, where new ideas have come to you about economics through art, aesthetics, etc.. I want to be careful here. I'm not talking about reaffirmations of ideas that you have, or reflections of your economic views. But, do you ever experience art as a place where economic discourse is created?
DM: Absolutely. As I said before, I became a socialist in part because of The Grapes of Wrath, which I read when I was sixteen. I was already something of an anarchist. I had read Prince Kropotkin. And, Emma Goldman. She was my childhood hero. Then I read The Grapes of Wrath and became a sort of Joan Baez socialist. And read the first few pages of the Communist Manifesto and thought I was a socialist. So, there in a kind of naïve way is an example from my personal history of an idea coming from art. For a long time, though, I was learning to be a professional economist, and I had my hands full with Keynes and Marshall and so forth. But, in the last 20 years, and especially in the last 10, art has become more and more an important source for me of economic thinking. For instance, I read Buddenbrooks out of a sense of shame that I hadn't read it. The only Thomas Mann I had read was Death in Venice, because it's short. But, then I read Buddenbrooks out of a sense of shame, but saw in it the force of speech in bourgeois life. That's one of the themes of the novel. The grandfather in the novel is a German merchant in the Napoleanic Wars, and he makes the fortune of the family going around making deals. There's an important scene where Tom, who is the son, is out strolling with his wife in the countryside, and because he's a grain merchant and has to keep up good relations with farmers, he stops by a farmer's house and talks to him. And he makes a deal, for some rye or something that he's going to buy from the farmer. Mann sort of waxes eloquent about this speech act, and then there's speech acts all through the thing. There's a tremendously interesting speech act where Tom, who's now an older man in 1848, he and the rest of the town council are held by the mob-the proletarian mob-in the council chambers and aren't allowed to come out, and then its night, they light the lanterns, and Tom says, "I've had enough of this." And he goes out and confronts the mob, and with his voice is able to assert his class position. So, there you are. That really started me thinking about the role of speech in bourgeois life, and indeed economic life in general. And that, as I've told you, will be the subject of my next big project. So, yeah, I've gotten ideas of that character. They're at two ends of my economic life. In the middle it wasn't that important because I was preoccupied with becoming a competent economist.
JA: As we discussed before-like the household without servants-- I know how easy it is for all of us to think invisibly about art, about what's on your walls, on your table, and the effects that this stuff is having on us. It gets talked about as though these artifacts are secondary, that they're not working on you. This is a point that Arjo Klamer and you have long made. This culture is working on you whether or not your self-ideology is one of autonomy .
DM: Absolutely. For instance, modernist architecture teaches us constantly that humans, as Isaiah Berlin put it, though not in this context, can do anything they rationally propose to do. So there's a kind of Enlightenment optimism about rationality and the capabilities of rationality that just shows in the skyscraper. It's the intended statement, and indeed, as you say, has a subliminal effect on us. Like downtown Dallas; you think, well, we can dig up 30 of these buildings and you have a modern city.
JA: I read Buddenbrooks when I was 18. I read it when I was taking a course I believe it was in history. I was an undergraduate history major.
DM: I was too, until I actually had to take a history course.
JA: I believe it was a 19th/20th century European history course. That was one of the texts in the course.
DM: It's a great text. It's not a representation of what actually happened, but it's an imagination of it. It perhaps tells more about 1900 than about 1800.
JA: Thinking about that book. Up to that point growing up, I don't have a recollection of knowing what the middle class is. That is, I have images of it, but there's no texture to it. Because I didn't know people who were doing that for a living-not really; maybe a couple of relatives, but I didn't have much contact with them. So, in some ways, I learned the outline of a class perception, coming from particualar experiences and discourses about those experience, from a book like Buddenbrooks. It created for me what the middle class was. It wasn't that it was an addition for me, but it was the basis of my "knowledge" of the middle class. I think that's true for many people. There isn't a true dichotomy between all of these objects we call art, and something called reality. It is our real life.
DM: That's a terribly important point. Since the invention of art, which appears to be about 40,000 B. C., our world has been, in part, a world created by art, and our experience of life is apparently an experience of art. I knew a lot of members of the proletariat, but I didn't know anything about the agricultural proletariat when I first started reading about them. It's a great materialist mistake that we have a life, and then there's this ornamental stuff we call art. I think you and I both agree that's false. And it's that which makes art important. After the invention of the printing press, the photograph, film, the amount of re-presentation that we invite into our lives is amazing.
JA: It's hard to read the traces of these things in our work, in our ideas. But, I'm very opposed to the idea that we have the autonomy from the creative processes that our disciplinarity imposes upon us. The problem is how to then create discourses of translations. They can sometimes be extremely clumsy. You know, "he saw that painting, and then he wrote this." Then, it's so easily transposed, that there's nothing that mediates. As you say about abstraction, how do you tell a story in which there are many mediations?
DM: I think it's often helpful to keep the example of music in mind. Because, there's no issue of representation usually. Yeah, sure, you can do a thunderstorm, like Beethoven's 6th symphony-oh yeah, that's nice, that's a thunderstorm. But that's not what most music is. I'm very suspicious-even contemptuous-of the idea that there's a realism that's a view from nowhere. I just think that's crazy. Most particularly, the idea that there are realistic novels is absurd to me. Or that there are realistic films. I've only become of this in the last year or so that that's stupid too, and not just because there are camera angles and so on. But because in film you can't do what you can do in a novel. In the novel, you do a tremendous amount of internal dialogue. You can make that the whole novel, if you want to. That was the experiment of Faulkner, for example. It's all internal novel. The entire 100 pages of The Sound and the Fury about Benji perceiving the world-you're right inside his mind. You can 't do that in a film because it's about externals. And, likewise, in a novel you can't do superficial externals. You can't show every detail about the Battle of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind. You can't show the scene. The whole idea of art as a mirror of nature, to borrow Rorty's title, is a piece of romantic nonsense. Although we're discovering, interestingly, that the camera obscura was used by artists in Holland from the 15th/16th centuries onward. That they were actually making still lives and projecting from them.
JA: Let me shift again. A good deal of contemporary criticism of art's complicity with capitalism-maybe for the last hundred years, actually-has been over the issue of commodification. The idea that when art becomes a commodity, it signifies as a commodity. And that its main purpose or meaning is to be a commodity, to be sold. And that therefore that it loses its aesthetic value, or that its aesthetic value is identified now with economic value.
DM: So the first thing the newspapers report about a painting is its value, its price.
JA: Do you have any similar concerns? Arjo, for example, has these kinds of concerns. There's also the concern that when art becomes a commodity, that it gets seen much more as an object of consumption, where consumption is understood as satisfying material needs. And, so, the non-consumption qualities of art, as a different kind of experience-or, rather, there are some experiences that cannot be reduced to consumption, so that when art becomes a commodity, it is now a matter of consumption, and that these other experiencs are either developed in terms of consumption, or just neglected. What's you take on this?
DM: I don't know why art should be exempt from the general commodification of society. And then, as an economic historian I point out that we've always had commodification. The idea that there's a rise of commodification is I think false, although it is very common in the thinking of the left and the right about economic history. There's a myth that we sometimes don't articulate that there was a time when art and faith and work and love were all non-commodified. And then, this terrible thing happened. And, when was it?, the 16th century or the 19th , all these things came to be bought and sold. Well, I assure you that as an economic historian I regard that as a complete fairy-tale. Everything was for sale in the middle ages. Kingdoms were for sale. Wives and husbands were for sale. Marketplaces were for sale. Eternal salvation was for sale. Everything had a price in Europe in 1400 or 1300, and no-one objected to it. On the contrary, it's in the modern world-in the 19th century especially-that we developed this notion that there are spheres that are sacred. The separate sphere of the bourgeois woman as a sacred place, where she specializes in the virtues of faith, hope, and love, while her husband goes out into the harsh world where he must exercise only courage and prudence-not even justice-is something we made up. The idea that art is not a commodity is a shockingly modern invention. Phideas, in 5th-century Athens, Michaelangelo, there are wonderful passages in the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini where he brags about how much the Pope paid for this silver or gold goblet that he, Cellini, did. Cellini never thought of himself as an Artist, with a capital A. He just said, I am the best craftsman, and the best seller of my crafts around, and I can beat all these other guys, and if they don't like it, I'll be glad to take out my sword and attack them, as he often did. It's a piece of modern sentimentality. And, I think the posture of modern artists is very annoying. It reminds me of the attitude of modern astronomers, astrophysicists. They want lots of dough from the NSF to build telescopes, and they want you and me to pay for this stuff. Now, talk about useless. Why does the public need to know about the origin of the universe, or the composition of planets? It's of less value than poetry. You can make a case for a national poetry foundation much stronger than an argument for a national science foundation that pays for telescopes. And, yet when they're challenged on this point, they'll either take the prudence view, which I call the "Tang defense." That you have a space program to develop powdered orange juice. Or, they take the "high frontier" defense. "Oh, the future of humankind is to look into the universe," and they get all weepy. And I've noticed that artists do exactly the same thing. These are hard-nosed careerists-and I have no objection to that-they want to sell their paintings. They don't care if it's an art collector who's going to hide it away in his mansion, or some public-spirited person who's going to let the proletariat see the painting. They could care less. But they want us to think of them as priests, and I think they're full of it. They're priests who sell indulgences.
JA: I hope you see the irony in your position. We do have a National Poetry Foundation. It's the National Science Foundation! That's our modern poetry.
DM: That's exactly correct. These are all substitutes for an established religion. We don't have an established religion. We got a whole bunch of other establishments, acadmic life for instance. You and I may complain about our colleges, but we're paid more than we're worth. If we had to earn an honest living, if we had to go work, we'd be paid less.
JA: On some points you make, I find myself in agreement. I thought the point you were going to make about artists is that many do-not all-- want to sell their paintings, and then they often treat their consumers as philistines. This is an interesting dynamic. On the one hand, they participate in the market since they say they have no choice; they have to earn a living. But, the very fact that they commodify their art implies that the consumer may be king, but they mock their consumers. Precisely because they see the consumption of their work as consumption. There's something about consuming their work-this person wants my work just to consumer it and not for other reasons.
DM: I'm not so sure that artists have that attitude. I suppose some do. But others view their customers with respect. And that I think is the healthy relationship between artists and customers. When you're engaged in sneering at your customers, I think you do bad as a capitalist.
JA: But don't you think there's a transformation in the very terminology. That they endow their customers with non-customer characteristics, which then enables them to treat them with respect. Analogously, if you treat the artist just as a "producer," that might bother the artist, but if you have a different way of thinking about the term artist, you can buy from this person much easier.
DM: Yes, I think this is quite generally true in capitalism. That you bring the sacred into relationships because you can't stand it to be all profane. The classic example is when you buy a house. And you imagine yourself to have a relationship with the realtor. Now, some realtors have more integrity than others, but on the whole-I don't mean to offend anyone-they're a pretty questionable group, and they're not your friends. Or you go and buy a dress: "oh, it's you dear." I don't think we should be excessively critical of this. It's a bunch of people, like college professors, who don't have to face the marketplace, who are always urging a stony, hard-nosed realism on everyone. That you must know that it's an exploitative relationship you're in, and this person you deal with is out to screw you, and don't you know that, you fool! Well, actual business people and actual customers can't live that way; no-one can. Wouldn't you agree, Jack? That we have to sweeten our lives.
JA: Yeah, but it's not just that. This is a point that you and Arjo and I and others have often made, in somewhat different ways. There is something questionable about the cardboard reductionist views of what it means to be a seller or a buyer, which is why I object so often to the neoclassical theory. There are so many things that go into buying something- so many emotions, feelings, and so forth.
DM: I'm slowly coming to agree with you.
JA: The same thing is true with the seller. There are many things going on with the seller.
DM: I agree with you. I just bought a painting that you can see on the other side of that post from a friend from church. It's a painting of clouds. Small. Small, because it cost a lot of dough. I felt that I should buy it as a patron. And I bought that painting there-that one with Iowa--from a student artist in Iowa City. I like the painting, but I didn't buy it entirely on consumptionistic grounds. And that painting there I bought as a patron-she was a friend of mine. And this is the only painting in the exhibition of hers I could stand; all the others were sentimental, and then in this one, she hit it right. So, that's why I bought it. It's not that I'm a virtuous person. But, that's what we do, as you said.
JA: Do we need to ennoble-use a language of ennoblement of--the actions of capitalist daily business? I understand that artists may have a lot of respect for people who buy their art, but sometimes they then endow these buyers with certain characteristics and qualities. Now, sometimes that language of endowment may be that of "the consumer," but sometimes the language shifts to treat these people as "people of taste," for example.
DM: What I'm concerned about is that we don't keep reinventing the aristocracy. The great accomplishment of the bourgeois political movements of the late 18th and 19th centuries was to cut the power of the aristocracy. And in places where that failed, like the German empire, it had bad consequences. We've got to stop looking back on the aristocracy as always the model for the sacred, or for "high stuff," or for the best-and that's what the aristocracy means, "the best." I think it's had a bad effect. I think academics and artists view themselves as the new aristocracy; they'll say it often. D. H. Lawrence, who was a reliable source of fatuous remarks of all kinds-fatuous, fascistic remarks-said just this in 1905. And that's the purpose of my book. To make a bourgeois identity that's stable, instead of always slipping back into being a cowboy, or being a patron of the arts, aristocratically. Unforunately, those are the imaginative models that are presented to us. To go back to the very beginning of our conversation, I'd like to see more models for a satisfactory bourgeois life. Look, we've got these beautiful images of heroes and saints. Vivid, beautiful, with a thousand years of art behind them. Three thousand years of art behind them. And, heroes and saints are not what we need. We need people who are prepared to treat others as equals, who are prepared to make deals, prepared to respect each other. Those are all bourgeois virtues. Put it this way. The universal class into which we are gradually sinking- well , not sinking. the class we're all becoming-is not the proletariat. This is a big, big mistake. And it's not just in Marx. It's a Classical Economics mistake. It's a mistake you can understand from the perspective of 1848. It's not a surprising mistake. The class we're merging into is the bourgeoisie. If art and society are going to function well together, aren't going to kill each other off, then we have to have an art that comports with this fact and stops denying it. I have a lot of evidence early in my book of how hardy the courageous cowboy, hardboiled detective, knight, the Seven Samurai/High Noon/Shane kind of figure is in the imaginary of the American bourgeois male. And it's bad for the soul, and its bad for business.
JA: It's an interesting point, that the very notions that we have-that the representations that we have of what constitutes what we think of as individuality may be an individualized lord.
DM: Exactly. It's a very dangerous thing because it's anti-female, it's anti-gay, it's anti-black. It's bourgeois white, American men and how grand they are. And how they should decide things with their fists. There's a very interesting scene in The Sun Also Rises, where whatshisname comes into a Parisian dance hall with his girlfriend, and sees a bunch of gays, who are effeminate homosexuals in particular, in this passage of 1925 (or whenever he wrote this novel). And the hero is overcome with this desire to swing, as he calls it, "swing on them."
JA: But I wonder in your own imagery about individuality, and so forth, whether one can find traces of a similar sort. When you are forced to state what are the virtues of the individual in the economy, since you endow this individual with a certain mastery, and orderliness, and. . .
DM: I completely understand. A perfect example of this is Ayn Rand. Who, as Arjo pointed out to me a long time ago, is a romantic. She's extremely romantic about her heroes and heroines; they're Arthurian knights. Well, I've come to see that that's not the right art to pick up on. The danger of modern American businessmen thinking of themselves in term's of Sun Tzu's "art of war"; by the way, this is Princeton University Press's cash cow; this translation of The Art of War. It just sells gigantic numbers. They've got the copyright to the translation. They're making money; it's supporting a whole bunch of scholarly books. Well, if you think of being a manager as exercising the "art of war," then you are going to do a lot of dumb things. And you are going to do a lot of unjust and nasty things. Because, "that's what tough guys do." If you think the way to behave-the way to lead men-again I emphasize the men since it's a highly masculinist perspective-is to do John Wayne. . .Have you ever noticed that John Wayne is always manhandling women? He's always grabbing them by the arm.
JA: Yeah, placing them somewhere. He "relocates" them.
DM: There was of course in our father's generation, that was the expected role. Even very sweet types-Gary Cooper does this. In The Fountainhead, Gary Cooper rapes the heroine.
JA: So, if that's our conception of what it means to be an individual or a hero. . .
DM: It's terribly important not to have that conception. There's a mistaken, ahistorical claim that individualism springs out of European civilization in the 16th century, and before that we were collectivist. Well, try telling that to people in the middle ages. They'd say, what do you mean collectivist? Are you nuts? We can't be collectivist. We've got to watch out for ourselves and we're individualists, you can be sure of that. But there's a version of individualism which is not individualism, that is a moral individualism. But there's a kind of "screw-you, I've got mine, I'm alright jack, country club" version of the Adam Smith/art of war folks which says, being selfish is all that's necessary. I was coming home last night from Northwestern on the subway, and I was standing on the platform. And this girl next to me took the plastic cap off a water bottle and threw it on the platform. Well, she's there. She's young, and I'm an older woman. So, in a grandmotherly way, I said, "Dear. You've dropped this." Cause I didn't want her to throw it on the pavement. And instead of catching the point, she said, "oh, no, I was just throwing it away." And I said-and it just came out of me-"what kind of citizen are you throwing this on the platform?" And then some guy got into the act on the other side, and he said, "do you know how long it takes plastic to biodegrade?" She was out of it. She didn't know what we were talking about. We didn't carry it on, but we were indignant at her violation of the rules of civilized behavior. And I think that's what art should be telling us. Not just that we're isolates, and the world is a lonely place, and screw you. But, that we're part of a community, we should care about other people.
JA: This conception of individualism is a very different conception of the individual. Because what it also allows for is to see that the individual hero, as feminists have long said, also gets his shirts ironed. When he goes out into the street, somebody has ironed his shirts, somebody has fed him, and so forth. So, we're seeing him at a moment, and that moment is glorified, and the rest of the conditions that allowed him to go out that way are completely obliterated. Marx had a term for this notion of the individual, which you may not like: the social individual.
DM: No, I don't object to that. I think the social individual is exactly what we ought to be, right? He approved of that, right?
JA: Well, he's describing it at a particular historical moment.
DM: Oh, he's making the point that we're all in a society that we think that we're individuals.
JA: Yes, but he also had a value that he placed on this notion of the individual.
DM: By the way, that point that you make that someone has to do the washing up is something that's become a lot clearer to me as a woman than as a man. Then, it was, oh well, it's tough. Now, I'm sharply aware that someone has to clean the toilets because I'm cleaning them.
JA: This is what I was trying to discuss earlier when we were talking about economic representations, and when you might "see" maximizing behavior. What would characterize that sight, and how would you go about talking about it. And, sometimes I think that our images-our imaginary-are very much connected with such notions as theindividual; that's the isolated individual, or that's the heroic individual. That's not a company in which the people have talked to one another to come up with a decision about how it goes about making profit. So, we can have this image of someone who makes this dramatic, individualist decision to make profit (maximizing behavior). But this is very different from a company in which people sit down to make decisions to make profits.
DM: Actual people. Who were once children, and speak this or that language, and who come with many. . .
JA: For example, our mutual friend Bregje is working on a project on ideas, and one of the aspects she's investigating is the question of proprietorship. When and how it is that people adopt languages of "this is my idea," or when it is "your idea,"or when do you know it's "your idea." When you talk about the exchange of ideas; as I said to you, this is one way to talk about it. We can see each other as proprietors of ideas. Another to talk about it is that we're collaborators.
DM: Yes, indeed.
JA: So, these imaginaries are really important. What's the language we're going to use to describe these processes? Same thing with profit maximization. Even if you accepted it, you could have a language that makes it very different from the heroic or isolated individual.
DM: Here's how I argue. There are virtues. You can make a good case for there being 7 virtues-the 7 cardinal virtues. But, I don't care, 10, 3, 30. I don't care. There are virtues. And these extreme types of the hero who has only courage, or the saint who has only love, or faith perhaps, or the merchant who has only prudence-these are ridiculous models of human beings. They're not only that, they're dangerous. If you're an artist who adopts the attitude I'm going to paint anything that will sell, I don't care, I don't have any artistic ideas or principles, I'm just going to paint things that sell, then you make yourself into a lousy artist. If you're a businessperson whose only virtue is the bottom line, you end up as an Enron executive. And so forth. This is vice. In fact, a classic analysis of evil and vice is that it's the extreme exercise of one virtue. So, the prisons are filled with courageous people, and that's how they justify their lives: "At least I'm a man, I'm tough, I'm brave." Yeah they're brave, but they're injust, and unloving, and intemperate. So, it's in terms of these classical virtues that I want art to proceed.
JA: So, do you think that aesthetic representations or art are, for you, in terms of a project or policy, a place where moral economy is promulgated somehow? Do you really want it to be that much of a project?
DM: Yes. There is nothing historically unprecedented about what I'm saying. Before 1848, all art was this way, all art was an improvement project. Now, that didn't mean that Bach didn't compose on aesthetic principles that did not themselves derive from ethical thinking. He certainly did. And what distinguishes him from others not so good is that he was very good at that. But, his project was to glorify God. He said so. He didn't just say so, it's obvious in his oratorios. It's not just because that he was the church organist that he did so, though that was one reason. It was because he believed in God. In fact, there's a big change when advanced intellectuals stopped believing in God. In a way, I think that's where the artistic problem comes. Because the artist gets elevated to a priesthood; before they didn't think of themselves as being priests. It's the same time of the invention of the museum, which becomes a church, especially in the 19th century. And then science and art become substitutes for religion. As you said before, these astronomers sound like artists. The artists sound like astronomers. Because what they do is art, a work of imagination, but it's got this elevated position because we've got a hole in the sacred in our society, and it's filled with art and science. And I think it should be filled with things that we do. And actually, I think we should go back to believing in God, as I do now.
JA: Do you think you have a better chance of converting people to bourgeois virtues through belief in God?
DM: Yes. Many middle class people want a purpose in life, and don't have it. They need to be told that the work they do is worthwhile. It's a scandal that so much of our art is contemptuous of what most people do. There's nothing wrong with being the manager of a grocery store. It's not evil. It's not bad. It's good. It makes me weep to think of people who regard their lives as meaningless because artists and intellectuals have failed so signally in the last century and a half to carry on the project of developing the art for a commercial society. They have devalued all manner of work, proletarian and bourgeois.
JA: The irony here is that there are critics who argue that all art is so tied to capitalist commodification, that it is is a sign for commercial society. And your point is that art for commercial society doesn't exist!
DM: In its content, it hardly exists. Though there are contrary tendencies. American black music was highly commercial from the beginning, and is a gigantic artistic achievement. And yet it was an artistic achievement with popular music. So, it was on the radio right from the beginning. In fact, when jazz-when Charlie Parker becomes academic and exclusive-then, in my view, it stops being as bourgeois as it ought to be. When jazz artists start thinking of themselves as jazz Artists, with a capital A, and stop trying to please ordinary persons in a juke joint, then it starts to get crappy. Here I follow the English poet, Philip Larkin, who's also a jazz critic. He spoke of the 3 Ps as the great curse of modern art in the twentieth century. The 3 Ps who made art difficult, who made it an elite activity. Instead of something that could be bought and sold. Instead of being commodified. And the 3 Ps were Pound, Picasso, and Charlie Parker. To which I would add, Paul Anthony Samuelson.
JA: I think we should end on that note.