Art, Unproductive Labour and Singularity

The distinction between productive and unproductive labour was derived by Marx from Adam Smith. Smith’s theory was flawed, although we should credit him for making the politically loaded point that the ‘sovereign’ and “all the officers of justice and war who serve under him, the whole army and navy, are unproductive labourers”. Smith’s definition of unproductive labour still stands today: labour not exchanged with capital but directly exchanged with revenue.

There is no such thing as productive or unproductive labour in itself. Making material things is no more productive than providing services, information or fulfilling the reproduction of the means of production. Alfred Marshall, the grandfather of Neoclassical economics, argued that the distinction between productive and unproductive labour was a mistake, since even ‘services’ produce utility (satisfaction) for the consumer that purchases it. Marshall, thus, did not understand the distinction that Smith had made. The difference between productive and unproductive labour is the difference between labour that produces profits and labour that consumes revenue.

Smith’s illustration of the contrasting ways in which the capitalist paid two kinds of wages, one to the workers in a business enterprise, and the other to domestic servants in their homes, retains its clarity. In Marxist terms, the former was productive because it produced surplus-labour and the latter unproductive because it did not.

If we retain our focus on artistic labour, rather than its products, the test of Smith’s definition of unproductive labour provides clear results, I think. Is artistic labour exchanged with capital or directly exchanged with revenue? Since artists are not wage-labourers employed by capitalists, but own their means of production as well as the products that they produce, we are forced to conclude that artistic labour is unproductive labour even if certain capitalists, such as gallerists, dealers and later in the process, investors, earn a profit from trade in the products of artistic labour.

This shows up yet another abnormality in artistic production. Whereas most luxury goods are produced within the capitalist mode of production with productive labour, artistic products, which are not produced with productive labour and are not ‘produced as commodities’, nevertheless are luxury goods. Normally, productive labour produces products that are sold as luxury goods, while unproductive labour – services of various kinds – is the luxury good itself. Art is unusual: unproductive labour that is not a luxury in itself but produces luxuries without first producing commodities.

Negri is right that “art is the anti-market to the extent that it opposes the multitude of singularity to uniqueness reduced to a price”. We can put this into classic Marxist language very easily. Art is concrete labour, not abstract labour. To speak of art as concrete labour is not to fall into speculative philosophical aesthetic  notions of particularity in Schelling and Adorno, for instance, or one of the ‘pseudo-singularities’ to which Alberto Toscano alerts us (“The Sensuous Religion of the Multitude”, Third Text, Volume 23, Issue 4, July 2009, p.380). That is to say, “the non-dialectical transubstantiation of the postmodern, crystallised in the notion of singularity, which leaves the most questions pending in Negri”, has to be avoided not because of the singularity in it, but because of the speculative abstraction of singularity in it. Here, ironically, particularity is abstracted from the economic conditions that determine it, as if art’s particularity belonged to it as a quality rather than a social relation. Insofar as art is the production of ‘social use-values’ without commodification, the particularity of artworks is nothing but their non-economic value. The materiality and specificity of art is nothing but the fact that is is not reducible to the equivalence of exchange.


Just sent this short note to Paul O’Neill for his project ‘Our Day Will Come’:

setting up of a school (from Sept 15th) within a school for one-month in Hobart Tasmania. The school will take place in a converted labourer’s tea room in the central courtyard of the University of Tasmania and will be open for the duration of the project and contain an archive of the school of schools- a brief history of alternative art schools, edu-projects of the last 20 years – contributed by the initiator’s of these projects. 


He has asked people to contribute to their discussions by addressing themes, or keywords. This week he has asked for responses to the word ‘autonomy’. Here’s mine.

Autonomy is self-determination. Any attempt to predetermine the content of autonomy (such as the late-modernist emphasis on ‘truth to materials’), therefore, flouts the principle of self-determination because it presents objective, universal and intrinsic conditions on what counts as self-determining. Autonomy has to be chosen and cannot be given. The difference between autonomy and liberty is that the latter is satisfied with individuals choosing what they like, whereas the former is reflective and dialectical, such that it aims at the self-determined choices of a self-determined self. This is why autonomy has to be won, not merely assumed. Each individual – or group – that aims for autonomy must enter into a process of self-transformation and self-institutionalization to bring about the conditions of autonomy. Autonomy cannot be imposed by others or selected from a list of options; it must be built.

A Cultural Critique of Cultural Studies

This is a paper delivered by Freee at the Radical Philosophy conference in 2007. It is deliberately polemical and I would want to finesse it but some of what it says remains pertinent.

Cultural Studies may be bad politics. It may also be bad social science and bad philosophy. What we want to argue today is that Cultural Studies is bad cultural studies – bad, that is, at studying culture.

We can’t say, as yet, whether bad politics leads to Cultural Studies’ bad interpretations of culture or vice versa, but we are convinced of two things:

1)    the bad interpretations of culture in Cultural Studies cannot be overcome with good politics alone, and

2)    what is wrong with Cultural Studies’ understanding of culture has political implications of its own

There are several approaches to culture that have had prominence in the history of Cultural Studies. We will focus on three.

a)     culture as resistance through rituals

b)    culture as code

c)     culture as active consumption

Resistance Through Rituals

The concept of resistance through ritual was central to the formation of Cultural Studies and led directly to the development of the second wave of Cultural Studies as the study of subcultures and consumption. It is one of the founding ideas of Cultural Studies that culture is the site of symbolic resistance in which subordinate groups such as young lads or a TV audience implicitly – and often unwittingly – engage in a semiotic struggle with the large social system.

Now, the complaint that Cultural Studies finds resistance to hegemony in subcultural styles far too easily, which is a valid complaint, can go two ways. The complaint could be a complaint that resistance to hegemony is harder than this and we need to do a little bit more than cut our hair or wear our jeans in a certain way in order to resist in any meaningful sense. This may be true but there is another complaint that needs to be made. This one: Cultural Studies finds resistance in culture far too easily, that is to say, it interprets culture too tendentiously.

The cultural problem is central here. How are we to read resistance into subcultural style? The question, for the moment, is not whether these ritualistic acts of resistance can be said to be really resistant or not. The question is how these cultural acts are interpreted as resistant. We’re not trying to come up with a new theory of subcultures. We’re not trying to say that Teddy Boys and Punks weren’t insubordinate trouble makers at all. But there is a deeper question here about how we are to attend to culture.

Cultural Studies spends a lot of time thinking about and writing about acts of cultural interpretation. One of the things that Cultural Studies wants to persuade us of is the power of young consumers to re-interpret the world of signs in the culture industry. What happens, though, is that Cultural Studies insists on the plasticity of signs in order to create the space in which viewers, consumers and fans can re-interpret and subvert the codes that hegemony prepares for them. As soon as this possibility of subversive recoding is established, however, Cultural Studies loses interest in the plasticity of signs, replacing this with a rigid defence of the subcultural interpretation of signs.

So, while music critics in the 1980s might have been disparaging about ‘Like a Virgin’, ‘Borderline’ and ‘Holiday’, Cultural Studies came to Madonna’s defence in order to defend her fans. As John Fiske put it, ‘Madonna offers her fans access to semiotic and social power … which may empower the fan’s sense of self and thus affect her behaviour in social situations’. Cultural Studies reads Madonna against the grain, then, but then proceeds as if it has discovered the actual, real, true reading – as if the destabilizing effect of reinterpretation could be halted at this point because this particular reading belongs to the fans, not to the industry, intellectuals or the media.

Compare this with, say, a reading of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’. We have an official modernist view, that the work is an extraordinary technical feat accomplished with innovative swagger, but we might also have the ‘fans’ of Guernica who love it because of its iconographic attack on Fascism. Neither holds the key to the painting, we would insist. In fact, what the history of art shows us is that the meanings of works are under constant reconstruction. A feminist critique of Guernica’s iconography, for instance, would provide us with new things to see in the work. Each generation and each intellectual fashion revisits familiar works and transforms them by seeing them differently.

It may be possible, therefore, to see resistance and empowerment in culture and its rituals of consumption, but such readings must always be unstable because they cannot overrule alternative readings. Cultural works, act and events have to be attended to with care or else the contradictions and complexities that they carry will be simplified into one-dimensional readings. Guernica, for instance, is both an innovative modernist painting and an anti-Fascist piece of propaganda, but it also contains unreconstructed images of gender stereotypes and its technique is based on a modern-Romantic conception of the artist as genius which, ironically, has Fascist overtones.

Brief as it is, this complex reading of Guernica illustrates something crucial in cultural interpretation that Cultural Studies typically fails to grasp – the complex, layered, contested, contradictory meanings of culture are not brought to the work by its various ‘readers’; they are brought out of the work by an equally complex, layered process of reading. In other words, the contradictory meanings in culture are not the result of different gangs of readers; they are the result of the complex social processes that impact on the work’s production, distribution and consumption. As such, complexity here does not come out of or lead to relativism – complexity is real.

To think of youth culture as ritualised symbolic resistance is to read it one-dimensionally.


Roland Barthes’ semiotic analysis of popular culture provided some of the key tools for Cultural Studies’ interpretation of culture. Barthes had already pioneered the study of low brow culture and homespun style, but his value to Cultural Studies lay primarily in his version of semiotics, which emphasized the embedding of signs in codes or myths, as well as opening up these myths to counter-readings.

Within the Barthesian schema, youth cultural styles were seen by Dick Hebdige and others as ‘signifying practices’, ‘systems of communication’, and ‘coded exchanges of reciprocal messages’. Style, here, is a code that is mutated by subcultural recoding. Hebdige often describes how existing style codes are adopted and adapted, reworked and subverted, through innovative combinations, recontextualizations and bricolage techniques. Punks, for instance, took the clothing and accessories of existing sexual subcultures – bondage, etc – and wore them in public, simultaneously drawing on their original seedy context and breaking away from that context.

Now, it is clear from the work of anthropologists and sociologists that cultural behaviour conforms to and is shaped by codes. We know, for instance, that different cultures have different codes that give sense to their attitude to food, so that one culture might regard a particular food as a delicacy while another regards the same food as disgusting. The insight of anthropology, sociology and semiotics is that the social codes of a society produce the individuals of that society – and their tastes. As such, to speak of codes and codification, signs and signifying systems, is perfectly legitimate and viable at the level of the social whole. The trouble starts when we try to interpret actual cultural works and acts in terms of these codes alone.

The problem of interpreting culture according to social codes is analogous to identifying individuals in a society according to the class or group to which they belong. It is not that the level of the social totality is false in some way, only that it is not strictly applicable to the individual case. And it is certainly not exhaustive – simply saying that someone is bourgeois might not say very much about them. Likewise, to say that a subculture uses a code against the grain may not say very much at all other than, perhaps, that subcultures take material from the existing ‘straight’ culture but the codes which normally shape that material and our attitudes to it are strangely absent for the young people that use it.

The closest example within art of this sort of practice is found in the readymades and appropriation. Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ is a urinal recontextualized as a sculpture. Jeff Koons’ vacuum cleaners in glass vitrines, similarly, are recognizable domestic products or tools made strange by their undomestic recontextualization. Hirst’s dead animals, too, are out of place. It would be far too simplistic to say that the original codes to which the urinal, vacuum cleaners and dead animals belong have been subverted or adapted. In fact, it doesn’t seem as if talking about social codes is going to add anything to our understanding of these works and the way they recontextualize their objects.


Cultural Studies is, by and large, a study of consuming practices. Against the previously prevailing prejudice that the consumption of mass culture is passive, mindless and confirms the subordinate position of the working class (found, if nowhere else, in some Frankfurt texts), Cultural Studies finds that the consumption of popular culture is active, sophisticated and subversive.

Artists after modernism have increasingly produced their work through the appropriation, consumption, sampling, collecting, archiving and combination of things already in existence. As such, the distinction between production and consumption that was so central to modernist thinking, has lost its force. Marx’s comment that every act of production is simultaneously an act of consumption has never been more welcome in the contemporary art world. However, to think of consumption as a productive, meaningful act is not the same as validating consumption as the site of cultural dissent.

Judith Williamson puts the case for examining patterns of consumption very clearly: ‘the conscious, chosen meaning in most people’s lives comes much more from what they consume than what they produce’. This may be true, but it leads to a false conviction about locus of cultural signification in the activities and responses of consumers, viewers and so on. It is not that we want to argue that consumers, users and viewers have nothing to contribute. Culture is not, as it were, complete in advance of the viewer. Nevertheless, it does not follow from this that consumers and viewers are the source of all meaning, or that the meaning that a consumer develops when engaging in culture is somehow inviolable.


Considering these various approaches to meaning in culture that define Cultural Studies together, what they have in common is that they place the consumer in a position of unchecked power in regard to reading, recoding and interpretation.

There are two main problems underwriting Cultural Studies’ overinvestment in the consumer’s ability to recode the world.

The first is that Cultural Studies has an expressive theory of cultural meaning that supplements and undermines its semiotics. Consumers are taken to be expressing their needs and desires – or the ideal needs and desires that the writer thinks they ought to have – through the manipulation of signs. But Cultural Studies does not ask how these signs and materials are imbued with such meanings. The trouble with expressive theories of culture, as the Conceptualist art group Art&Language have pointed out, is that, if what you do expresses your experience, then there is no difference between a painting and baking a cake. What we want to know, however, is how culture signifies in a way that a cake does not.

Expressive theories hand over all interpretative power to the writer or critic rather than the consumer or artist – it is they who articulate what is being expressed. In the case of Cultural Studies, what consumers are said to express is some deep, usually hidden, reality – the consumer’s social position and their hopes of overcoming the limits imposed on them. Apart from the fact that these are better understood as the writer’s desire rather than the consumer’s desire, the problem, in terms of meaning, is that such expressive theories fail to distinguish between a Punk’s use of swastikas and a Mod’s use of the Union Jack on their clothing. Each expresses roughly the same thing. And no proof can be given for such expressive interpretations – you can’t point to the way the swastika is being used in this context to express dissatisfaction.

The second problem is that Cultural Studies confines itself to the first person accounts of consumers and fans. Effectively, then, the only accounts of culture that matter to Cultural Studies are characterized by enthusiasm, love, investment and pleasure. This means that it rules out the possibility of critical readings of popular culture, much in the same way that traditional aesthetics concerned itself exclusively with the taste of art lovers, rather than questioning those values by extending its study to those excluded from art’s cultural capital. There is certainly going to be a critical shortfall if we only ask Mods about Mods, Punks about Punk, and Madonna fans about Madonna. It would be a start to mix things up (ask Mods about Punks, ask Punks about Madonna), but what a critical interpretation of culture needs is a layered, complex, multidisciplinary approach, not one based on the first person accounts of consumers.

Towards a Philistine Art School

I just came across this in my archive from a paper I gave at the Association of Art Historians conference for a panel organized by Malcolm Quinn on the art school in 2006

The idea of a philistine Art School appears to be a contradiction in terms. This is partly because the Art School is meant to produce competent cultural citizens, and partly because it makes little sense to teach philistinism, since the philistine is meant to be short on something important. To build a philistine Art School, then, means to challenge the basic assumptions of the Art School as it stands, and simultaneously to question the deep-seated cultural prejudices against the philistine. I want to talk about what might be gained by engaging in these two complementary projects and by doing so begin to dismantle the main obstacles to the building of the philistine Art School.

What is the status of the philistine’s encounter with art? Should a philistine art student be encouraged out of their philistine forms of attention? If so, would the philistine art student thereby by brought into art’s community, and by becoming internal to art, would the philistine art student no longer be philistine? Is the philistine an outsider? This spatial metaphor is endemic to thinking about art. It allows the philistine to be marginalized. Theories of cultural division, regardless of political affiliation, customarily formulate the division of culture along the perimeter of art. Simply: that cultural division is the division between art and the rest of culture. Inscribing cultural division along the boundary of art, whether for the purposes of shoring up art’s self-image or establishing traffic between art and its others, obscures divisions internal to art. Cutting across art’s own categories, however, inserts the question of cultural division into art itself. There is a strategic value to rethinking cultural division as internal to art, but there more to it than that. What is fundamentally at stake is whether, for example, a philistine’s experience of art is to count as internal to art.

Going some way to theorising cultural division as internal to art and as cutting across art’s own categories, Art and Language, in an essay entitled “Painting By Mouth”, examined some of the implications of two distinct modes of attention for art through the analysis of two models of a painting’s (P’s) rival onlookers:

Imagine two ideal onlookers: (A) and (B). (A) goes immediately to P, waits until he gets the proper feelings, etc., and then he just might look up the title of P, seek information and confirmation concerning P, etc. (B) goes immediately to the catalogue (or etc.) seeking to discover how to read the picture. (A) and (B) may correspond to some real or possible onlookers. Indeed, we may suggest that this relative ordering of ‘reading’ of pictures and titles goes to different fragments of culture, social divisions and so on.

Onlookers (A) and (B) are more than just two contingently related possible onlookers; the distinction between them is articulated by existing cultural and social divisions. Onlooker (A) corresponds, roughly, to the post-romantic model of aesthetic appreciation taken up by modernist culture (and not fully expunged by postmodernism) in which the viewer is figured as autonomous and his (almost never her) engagement with art is predicated on a kind of face-to-face encounter with the artwork based on the Protestant idea of how the individual worshipper established his or her own private relationship with God without the mediation of clerics. In Bourdieu’s terms, onlooker (A) is only able to appear autonomous in this way because the process of acquiring the wherewithal (cultural capital) to engage meaningfully with art has been concealed or denied as a necessary feature of the acquisition. Onlooker (B) has no cultural capital to speak of and so seeks a point of entry from whatever form of mediation is available.

In other hands, onlooker (B) might be regarded as a cultural figure self-evidently external to art or at least peripheral to its competences – a struggling art student perhaps. Consequently, any cultural division identified by the rivalry between (A) and (B) could be grounded and resolved with reference to art’s proper horizon. (A)’s hegemony could be perpetually restored in this way. By considering (A) and (B) as rival onlookers for the same painting, Art and Language introduce cultural division into art as an internal tension, not a mark of distinction. Only in this way, or some equivalent of it, can (B)’s cultural agency – or C’s or D’s or etc – begin to have an impact on (A)’s cultural world.

In the twenty years since Art and Language wrote about onlookers (A) and (B), the normative environment of the museum has (under the pressure of increasing visitor numbers, expanding new audiences and the postmodernist critique of modernism’s exclusionary institutions) shifted some way from the clear hegemony onlooker (A). Onlooker (B) is courted and catered for in contemporary (museum and other) practices in ways that would have been scandalous to the previous generation of curators. The same shift has not occurred within the Art School. One of the reasons for this is that the courting of Onlooker (B) has not ousted Onlooker (A)’s legitimacy and dominance. Onlooker (B) has not been fully endorsed. Care has been taken to preserve the experience of onlooker (A) alongside the provision of supplementary material for the influx of onlooker (B)’s. What’s more, the forms of attention advocated by the vast majority of museum catalogues, wall panels, audio guides and education programmes are those perfected by onlooker (A)’s throughout the history of modernism: visual, aesthetic, emotional, authorial, expressive, and so on. (B) does not challenge (A)’s hegemony of culture in the typical managerial mission of the new museology.

Consider, by contrast, the extent of the shift envisaged by Art and Language in their analysis of the act of painting by mouth [PBM1]:

PBM1 shifts the advantage away from (A) towards (B). In Modernist (and etc.) culture the advantage would be supposed to the other way round: the possibility of an authentic reading would tend to be favoured by the tendencies of (A). The sensitive (A’s) search for unreflected content is more likely to be doomed to remain a convulsion or series of convulsions of his first‑order discourse than is (B’s) relatively more sober practice.

If paintings executed by mouth resemble expressive (and other modernist and postmodernist) styles of paintings then it follows that onlooker (A)’s forms of attention (going straight to the work etc) will not equip the onlooker with the ability to distinguish one from the other and may find themselves emoting or aestheticising inappropriately, whereas onlooker (B)’s forms of attention (reading the title first) will know in advance not to bother. This is what Art and Language mean by shifting the advantage away from onlooker (A): painting by mouth is a trap designed with onlooker (A) specifically in mind. Indeed, despite all the hubris about postmodernist critiques of art’s institutions and the new museology’s transformation of the cultural environment, it remains, twenty years on, something of a scandalous suggestion to describe onlooker (A)’s forms of attention as ‘convulsions’ and onlooker (B)’s as ‘sober’.

Among other things, Art and Language’s summoning up of onlooker (B), or in my terms the philistine, is a first step in articulating cultural division as the construction of rival and contestable publics for art. Onlooker (B) is a stain on aesthetics: its effects cannot be localised (the whole surface of the fabric is stained, not just this little corner). This is because the introduction of the philistine enacts a qualitative transformation of the cultural field: without (B) or its philistine equivalent, (A) is not an onlooker of art, but the onlooker of art. The philistine is not included into the community of gallery-goers and the Art School community as a trouble-free addition to art’s world.

If (A) and (B) are rivals in art, however, then it would seem to be impossible to settle the question of which model of art that they represent should be regarded as the legitimate one. Art would, therefore, correspond somewhat to Laclau’s concept of the ‘empty signifier’ – “whose temporary signifieds are the result of political competition”. As such, rather than talking about art or aesthetics as having certain essential qualities, art would be opened up as the contingent result of hegemonic struggles over culture by rival fragments of the divided social whole. It would no longer make any sense to talk about what art is, what artists are or what art’s onlookers do without identifying from which fragment of culture these claims derive.

Now, at the same time as opening up art to the contingencies of contestation through the play of hegemonic struggle, multiplying art in the process, the rivals within cultural division would also tend to multiply. (A) and (B) would seem to open up the field of cultural contestation for a vast range of cultural rivals. Onlookers C to Z seem to be worth considering for the Art School, the gallery and elsewhere. There is a whole philistine alphabet of cultural rivals that needs to be articulated and space made for them within the gallery, museum and Art School.

Art and Language couch the distinction between onlooker (A) and onlooker (B) in terms of certain technical features of their respective rival forms of attention. These techniques derive from conceptualism’s complaints about the intellectual heritage of modernist painting: onlooker (A)’s forms of attention follow from the modernist understanding of the primacy of the visual; onlooker (B)’s forms of attention are Conceptualist insofar as, for instance, they correspond to Siegelaub’s formula of inverting primary (visual) and secondary (supporting, contextual, discursive) information. In this sense, of course, the institutions of the new museology are graphically not populated by millions of onlooker (B)’s in the strict sense. To conceive of the rift in art’s modes of attention in terms of rival onlookers is already to construct cultural division according to sectional interests.

My first objection to the formulation of the rivalry between (A) and (B) is their shared status as onlookers. Building a philistine Art School means placing these various onlookers alongside other forms of engagement with art. An onlooker is an individual who looks on but has no agency in an affair, and this automatically skews the question of art’s potential rivals in three aspects – the primacy of vision, the framing of the encounter with art in terms of individuality rather than collective action, and the implication of passivity, rather than, say, participation, collaboration or co-production. In order to extend art’s rivals beyond the rivalry between onlookers (A) and (B) we need to extend our conception of the encounter with art beyond that of the onlooker.

A genealogy of cultural figures and their respective forms of attention would go some way to mapping culture’s divisions and thereby the routes through which culture is encountered and contested. To some degree disputes over culture are disputes over who or what we are meant to be when we attend to it. Or who or what we become by attending to it. Modes of attention are modes of being and modes of becoming. They are also, in the context of the Art School, constraints on what we are permitted to become – or who we are permitted to remain. Codes that prescribe proper forms of attention for art determine who feels comfortable at Art School and who feels threatened. They also determine our judgements about works and thereby affect the grades that students obtain. Philistine students have not tended to be high-flyers at assessments in the Art School.

The forms of address that are deployed in objects and processes within art and culture are invitations to act one way or another. They are consensual forms of regimentation. Aesthetic forms of address are no less regimes of action simply because they might seem, under certain descriptions, to be appropriate to art. If cultural figures are, or stand for, these regimes of cultural encounter, then paying attention to how we pay attention to culture will contribute to understanding who or what we can be, want to be or might be through culture and this includes how we pay attention to others through how they pay attention to culture.

Historically, the framing of the philistine as a cultural figure has conformed to cultural hierarchy: the division between the aesthete (etc) and the philistine is drawn along the same line as the division between the aesthetic and the non-aesthetic, between art and non-art. This is why the concept of the philistine is so handy for exclusionary conceptions of culture: the philistine, under this description, is not a cultural rival so much as a rival to culture. However, recognising that the philistine is a figure within cultural discourse by virtue of being a figure without culture does not mean discounting the philistine from the field of culture. Nor does it mean that the philistine is necessarily an uncritical category. On the contrary, the philistine is a vital – if largely overlooked – cultural figure by virtue of existing at the very horizon of culture. In fact, the philistine, as a cultural category, is peculiarly well placed to mount a critique of the field of culture and its symbolic economies. It is not a question of whether the philistine is internal or external to culture in general or the system of art in particular, the question is what kind of conception of art and culture puts the philistine outside art and culture, and what kind of conception of culture treats the philistine as an internal rival?

Without onlooker (B) or its equivalent, there is no resistance to onlooker (A)’s claims to universality. In other words, the very authority and legitimacy of (A)’s modes of attention within culture is dependent upon its unrivalled hegemony which can only pass itself off as universal or necessary so long as its rivals are convincingly portrayed as illicit, off the map, naïve, inept or violent. The philistine is a cultural figure that still bears the scars of exactly this treatment. Once we begin to question the cultural hegemony, though, the trick of ruling out cultural rivals by describing them as external to culture becomes too transparent to be taken seriously. The aesthetic hegemony of art and culture is smuggled into the field of cultural production by a symbolic violence that those who profit from it cannot see. Because of this, the philistine is a valuable cultural figure: the philistine knows better than anyone about the mutilation that is concealed by those who exert cultural hegemony in matters of culture.

One result of paying attention to cultural division in this way is to undo the idea that art is culture’s universal. As equals under the present cultural hegemony, aesthetics will always win against the philistine. The task is to present the philistine’s grievances as universal. The key to understanding how the philistine could be represented as the universal in culture lies in Marx’s identification of the working class with universal emancipation. For Laclau there can be no objective factors which would determine the hegemony of one group over another – the only thing that can determine that, for Laclau, is the contingent result of political competition. For Marx, however, the working class suggests itself for reasons that are far from contingent. Marx argues that the working class, as the producers of surplus value, has a special place within the capitalist mode of production which singles it out as the agent of universal emancipation. Marx would have been foolish to base his hopes in the working class on, say, the belief that they were especially virtuous, brilliantly educated, wise, kind, tolerant, full of good instincts or supernaturally well equipped to govern. No, Marx put his hopes in the working class despite everything. There was nothing positive about the working class that justified Marx’s championing of them. Quite the contrary, it was the negative position of the working class in the structure of the capitalist economy that gave that class its universal status, and it was the potential negative force of the working class that suggested it for the emancipation of humanity in general by its ability, if organised and determined, to abolish capitalism. The position of the working class in Marx’s analysis of capitalism can be instructive about the position of the philistine in cultural hegemony.

Likewise, philistinism is culture’s hope despite everything. The philistine is not culturally superior to the aesthete (or etc). In fact, there is nothing positive about the philistine that would justify any hope placed in it. Like the proletariat in the economy, though, the philistine holds a unique place within the totality cultural relations which means that it is the key to understanding culture and, potentially, a powerful agent in transforming it. Culture is best understood and explained fully only by rearticulating the philistine not as culture’s ‘other’ but as the negation of art’s (and aesthetic’s) ‘false universal’ (the contingent presentation of art and aesthetics as the cultural universal). The crucial difference between art (and aesthetics) and philistinism, in this regard – and this is decisive in the philistine’s claim to universality – is that the false universal requires as the condition of its own possibility a detotalising split from that which is not universal, whereas the philistine, which can gain its universality only through hegemonic battle with art, must understand its own place as operating within a totality of relations including its relation to the false universal. Philistinism retotalises.

Cultural capital brings real gains, not just symbolic ones. And they are hard to impugn when you benefit from them. What’s more, taking sides with the philistine carries real dangers in a culture hegemonically dominated by art and aesthetics. More than once I’ve regretted writing about the philistine in the way that I do. But cultural division doesn’t go away, and, in fact, so long as the philistine carries with it certain disadvantages, then the effects of cultural division need to be challenged. If we are to contest culture then we need to contest the very categories in which culture reproduces itself. We cannot take it for granted that the category of art is the one that is familiar with us. It is not just the job of artists to challenge the nature of art by doing novel things as art; it is also up to art’s onlookers, viewers, spectators, publics and a whole alphabet of others to transform their relationship to art. Art students and lecturers have to learn from the philistine instead of merely repressing it and ejecting it from the University. In fact, the campus needs to be redesigned. We need to build the philistine Art School. How?

Part of the answer to the question of how the Art School can reflect on its cultural capital critically rather than cynically lies in the heritage of the avantgarde. The philistine has held an unsteadily legitimate place within the institution of art since the emergence of anti-art and the avantgarde in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Avantgardists have even been called philistines by their cultivated rivals in art. More importantly, though, anti-artists and avantgardists have bequeathed a lexicon of philistine techniques that transform art, the role of the artist, the nature of artistic skill and the subjectivities that art can address. Chance, found objects, deskilling, ugliness, popular culture and everyday life are some of the ways in which avantgarde artists have transformed art by infecting it with its other, non-art. The avantgardist is an artist-philistine or a philistine artist. The philistine art school, therefore, would be a school of anti-art.

The Art School is the site of cultural tensions, hierarchies, conflicts and power. If it is to address these social conditions of its activities critically rather than cynically, then the Art School has to rethink its social function. Rather than legitimating students at Art School only insofar as they shed their philistine past, the Art School, if it is to take a critical stance in relation to the cultural capital it holds and distributes, could reform itself around the question of how it can legitimate the philistine. The Art School’s cultural induction of the newcomer into the artworld has to become an invitation to the philistine to enter art’s institutions as a philistine. The Art School must rewrite its curricula to preserve philistinism instead of erasing it as a condition of the maintenance of art’s institutions. The Art School must learn from the philistine.