The Arts and the Bust


Bad economic times such as our own don’t have many redeeming qualities, but a plunge in the value of the Dow Jones can result in a sharp increase in the value of both high and popular art. Looking back, we find that some of the darkest periods in modern history have given us some of the world’s best and most enduring artistic productions. The emergence of industrial capitalism in the 19th and early 20th centuries created human suffering on a hitherto unimaginable scale, but it also provided grist for such great writers such as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and Emile Zola. The deprivation and strife of the 1930s provided a backdrop for John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of WrathFor Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, and Richard Wright’s Native Son. And the victims of social dislocation and urban decay that characterized the passing of the New Deal order in the late 1970s and early 1980s found their voice in new musical forms like punk rock and hip-hop, which continue to underpin most popular music produced in the U.S. and around the world. I may lose my job, but perhaps we’ll at least get some great new books, films, and music out of all this.

This is part of the argument that the literary and social critic Walter Benn Michaels makes in a characteristically provocative piece called “Going Boom” in Bookforum. Riffing off of Francis Fukuyama’s argument that the putative end of ideological struggle over the desirability of capitalism would be bad for art, Michaels asks “if good for markets was bad for art, will bad for markets be good for art?” His answer is a resounding “maybe,” but this isn’t the most interesting part of his argument. That lies in his analysis of the relationship between the last thirty odd years of market fundamentalism and the prevalence of historicist treatments of race, ethnicity and gender in literature. To put it mildly, Michaels is not a fan of this trend. 

In mounting his argument, he covers some of the same ground that he did in his book The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned To Love Identity and Ignore Inequality. In that feisty book, Michaels skewered what he sees as the political and cultural left’s recent preoccupation with issues of diversity, identity, and multiculturalism, which has displaced what Michaels sees as the appropriate focus of left theorizing and political action: class power and socioeconomic inequality. 

For Michaels, identity politics and class politics seem to be counterpoised in a zero-sum game. The degree to which political actors and artists address issues of identity, especially instances of historical oppression based on identity (i.e. the Holocaust or Southern slavery), results in an equal and opposite shift in the degree to which they address economics and inequality. Thus, Michaels argues that the last thirty-odd years of market triumphalism “have been a pretty sad time for the American novel, and a lot of the best ones have been committed to historical caretaking” of historical oppression such as Beloved by Toni Morrison or The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (which depicts an anti-Semitic takeover in the U.S. during World War II that never even happened). Pointing to skyrocketing inequality since the publication of Morrison’s novel in 1987, Michaels acidly remarks, “for a great many Americans, in other words, the boom has been the problem, not the crash. But the more unjust and unequal American society has become, the more we have heard about how bad, say, the Holocaust was…maybe it’s time to forget about the Holocaust for a while and focus on the free market instead, to stop congratulating ourselves on being against genocide and to start questioning what it means to be for free trade.” 

Michaels is entirely right in calling for a renewed emphasis on issues of class and socioeconomic inequality in American letters. The times indeed cry out for a contemporary Zola, Dreiser, or Dos Passos, and it’s certainly true that the rhetoric of “diversity” and “difference” can easily be used to sublimate considerations of class power. But his analysis of the relationship between identity politics and class politics is deeply flawed. In discussing Beloved, Michaels argues that “trying to overcome, say, the lingering effects of slavery doesn’t involve criticizing the primacy of markets; it just involves making sure that everyone has equal access to them. So when Beloved reminds us that we are a nation divided by race and racism…we’re effectively being told that our problem is lingering racism – not burgeoning capitalism.” This would be accurate if one accepts Michael’s strict dichotomy of identity and class – which one should not. Centrists and liberals certainly aim for the integration of certain members of historically oppressed groups into a fundamentally unjust system (the election of Barack Obama being the culmination of such efforts), but how could one ever hope to truly overcome the lingering effects of slavery and other forms of historical oppression without also mounting a challenge to the free market? Racism or sexism of the strictly personal, attitudinal kind has been basically discredited, but continuing forms of oppression against people of color, women, and others remain deeply embedded within the larger political economy of capitalism. How can one talk about the continuing subordinate status of people of color in society without reference to deindustrialization, deunionization, deregulation, and the decline of the welfare state – the very socioeconomic factors that have produced the general inequality Michaels bemoans? Instead of Michaels’s call for color-blind art that focuses narrowly (and incompletely) on class, what we need is more art that can effectively integrate a critique of identity-based oppression with a critique of the market at the same time. It is possible, and necessary, to walk and chew gum at the same time. 

Interestingly enough, Michaels unwittingly concedes this point when he speaks of the HBO television series The Wire as an exemplar of the kind of fiction we need in these hard times. As he notes, “The Wire is about institutions – unions, schools, political parties, gangs. It’s about the world neoliberalism has actually produced rather than the world our literature pretends it has.” Undoubtedly true, but to read this one might think that the show did not primarily focus on the lives of African-Americans in inner-city Baltimore and the many ways in which race, class, and power are inextricably linked. Even though The Wire went off the air before Obama’s election, it truly is the essential artistic representation of life in the U.S. right now, and we need more books, shows, and films like it to help us make sense of where we are and how we get here (and perhaps even how we might get someplace better). But if writers and artists strictly follow Michaels’s advice, we’ll never get to enjoy them.

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