Rosalind Krauss has argued that capitalism, not aesthetics, is the prevailing principle behind art. Reflecting critically on Clement Greenberg’s idea of medium specificity as part of his modernist theory, she points out that commodification has leveled the differences that might exist between painting and sculpture.[i] This begs the question as to the role the market plays in reframing art’s defining principle. We can question here the role of capitalism; presuming that changes in the economy affect changes in our social network—does it follow that, as Krauss asserts, consequential changes in our social network produces—a new principle that drives the production of art?
We can look at the middle class as both an economic and social category and investigate how changes here can affect how we understand art. What is the prevailing idea that makes this cause and effect possible? The middle class is a salient concept because of the prevailing notion today that it is in crisis, that it is disappearing. It is changing and if our assumption is legitimate we can locate a general idea that also exists in the way we think about and make art. In order to do this, we can take a closer look at the structure that defines a middle class, isolate it as an economic as a social category and propose that it exists in the middle between an upper class and a lower class. So, the central issue is the general concept of a middle, more specifically, an endangered middle. And it is this middle that is in danger of disappearing. This allows an analogy between a middle in an economic structure where it is located between two opposites, the rich and the poor, and other “middles” that we might find as an economic principle and a social category. Then we have the problem of the effect of the loss of the middle. As a social and economic trope, it shows up as a growing gap between the rich and the poor.
The supposition is that the middle class is in crisis as a result of the breakdown of the triadic relationship that is evidenced by a growing gap between the rich and the poor; this gap is described both as an expansion and a hollowing out. That is, the gap is either getting wider as in the distance between two points, or being hollowed out as in a loss, disintegration, or evaporation of its content. To expand and to hollow out are two different verbs although they have been erroneously used interchangeably to describe this gap, there are actually two discrete ideas here rather than two ways of describing the same thing. in the first instance, the middle is a statistically expanding negative space as income levels shift from the middle class to poverty.
On the other hand, the metaphor “hollowed out” describes a different phenomenon, which is the loss of material property, not a social group. Materially, it is the loss of small businesses or, in the case of art, the loss of mid-tier galleries, as we extend this idea into the realm of art. Rather than a metaphor of expansion caused by the displacement of a middle-class to the ranks of the poor, “hollowed out” describes the material evisceration of property and leaving a shell. Even if we conveniently define a business or a gallery a signifier of the middle class, which is possible if we measure it by a certain level of income or property ownership, on closer inspection the loss of each does not constitute a displacement or a shift from middle class to poverty but is instead a description of the disintegration of material property. It is logical to read this as an example of a metonymic relationship between property ownership and class status where the erstwhile owners of those properties shift into poverty. However, it is important to acknowledge the difference between property and people.
The importance of this distinction is not because of some moral or ethical argument about people not being the same as material objects. It goes to addressing the relationship of the middle class as a general concept to the idea of individual property like an art gallery as its example. It is the nature of this relationship that could offer clarity as we consider whether or not the closing of mid-tier galleries is linked to this crisis. The question is whether the failure of the middle class adumbrates a more general failure of the middle.
This depends on a relationship between the economy and grand narratives, which, as some propose, is sustained by the principle that grand narratives are essential to sustain the idea of a hypostasis that keeps in place a linked relationship between concepts and experiences. This results in a productive relationship between the plutocrat and the have-not (such as the flextimer who constitutes a common labor category in the art world). A hyperbolic suggestion is being made that the crisis in the grand narrative that we see in the postmodern moment is the result of the eradication of the hypostasis that allows a relationship between ideas and individualized experiences possible.
In this example, the loss of the middle constitutes the loss of the middle-class institutions, reflecting the hollowed-out metaphor. The grand narrative of identity makes the apprehension of individualized experiences possible. This results in the balkanization of individualized experience, which makes the formation of identity (a relationship with a group) impossible. On the other hand, the loss of middle-class workers is a phenomenon explained better by the expansion of the space between the rich and the poor metaphor, where the crisis of identity as a function of the loss of grand narratives does not apply.
The closing of mid-tier galleries as small business and the gap between plutocrats and workers seems to be presented together as evidence of this crisis. Additionally, it is proposed that this crisis may in some way be related to or descriptive of the postmodern moment. The question is what is the relationship between this economic phenomenon and the decline of grand narratives that portend the end of history, as one has argued. On the one hand this decline of the grand narrative is actually, according to postmodern thought (Lyotard) the space of an enhanced role of politics and culturally driven discourse. Identity is not in crisis. It is now seen as ideological rather than a universalism or natural phenomenon. The idea of history, art, and culture does not have to be in crisis here, only in a process of redefinition.
CHARLES GAINES is an artist.