The Politics of Beauty

Since I posted the Art Monthly essay on ugliness on the blog, I thought I’d add the article on beauty, too, which was first published in 2007 in AM 306.


Avantgardism interrupted the historical link between art and beauty. In recasting beauty as ideologically complicit with political power, while simultaneously cultivating a sensitivity to the repressed value of ugliness, avantgardism politicised beauty.

To see beauty as politically loaded is to brand private, subjective likes and dislikes as unintentional carriers of coded social information. Today, of course, this kind of political and social inscription (whether understood in terms of ideology, the social function of cultural distinction, suspicion about art’s institutions, the question of elitism or the social history of art and taste) is common currency, but it is a specifically modern conception.

Ancient, classical, medieval, Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers did not trouble themselves about how society weaves its way through our intimate experiences. The history of the emergence of this modern conception of socially inscribed behaviour is charted by Michael Rosen in his book On Voluntary Servitude where he argues that after the 18th Century, society wasseen for the first time as an active, behaviour-forming system or machine in which individual belief and conduct is explained as functional for or produced by society.

What is characteristic of premodern thinking is the conviction that society is simply the aggregate of individual choices and actions. However, Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ and Hegel’s ‘cunning of reason’ initiated a new conception of how individual actions were inextricably tied up with a greater whole. These were faint promises of what was to come – a fully-fledged theory of the ways in which society infiltrates the thoughts, feelings and actions of individuals in even the most private and subjective experiences.

Paul Ricoeur calls this modern interpretation of the relationship between the individual and society the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’. It was inaugurated, he says, by the works of Marx, Freud and Nietzsche. Ideology, the unconscious and the ‘will-to-power’ share a vital theoretical commitment to structures beyond the individual which decisively shape subjectivity itself. As a result, statements made by individuals about their intentions, beliefs and conduct cannot be accepted uncritically. Rather, the suspicion is that individuals are inevitably prey to forces that they cannot control – forces of which they are often entirely unaware.

When avantgardism took up the hermeneutics of suspicion in its diverse forms of cultural dissent, the resistance to beauty was part and parcel of the resistance to bourgeois culture generally. ‘Except in struggle, there is no more beauty’, wrote FT Marinetti in the 1905 Futurist Manifesto. Likewise, the Dadaist Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes put the Avant Garde’s antipathy to beauty in stark terms: ‘One is no longer concerned with knowing whether a thing is beautiful or ugly; whether it is logical, probable or fanciful – we pursue the ugly […]. And for the sake of strategy, since we must always be on the alert to avoid backsliding into habits which had become natural in the course of a long tradition – to prevent the beautiful, the noble, the exalted, the charming, the well-ordered, the perfect from catching the beast by the tail.’

The two most thoroughgoing avant-garde critiques of beauty come from the leading thinkers of Dada and Surrealism respectively, Marcel Duchamp and André Breton. Duchamp’s rules for selecting the Readymades, which he reported to be chosen according to complete visual indifference, deliberately left no room for beauty in art. Breton’s theory of ‘convulsive beauty’ took a different tack, violating the boundaries of traditional beauty with an intense experience of the object based on the hysteric rather than the aesthete.

Art after avantgardism tended to preserve the Avant Garde’s suspicion of beauty even when its politicisation had been cooled. Clement Greenberg, for instance, preferred to talk about works being ‘good’ or ‘successful’ rather than ‘beautiful’. After that, Pop was vulgar, Minimalism was literal, Conceptual Art was opposed to the visual and postmodernism was either more interested in the sublime or regarded beauty as one of art’s institutionalised discourses.

So, when Dave Hickey argued that the concept of beauty could be revived as a meaningful term for art criticism in the late 80s and early 90s, he was pitting himself against the entire history of Modernism and avantgardism, as well as the academics and curators of contemporary art’s institutions that he explicitly attacked. Unimpressed by the history of the politicisation of beauty, Hickey complains in his 1993 book The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty, ‘if you broached the issue of beauty in the American art world of 1988, you … ignited a conversation about the market’.

Hickey seemed to be stumped by the idea that artists, curators and writers might be wary of beauty, and makes no mention whatsoever of the history of avantgardism that animates the modern nervousness towards beauty. While it is not true that the art market was the source of the problem of beauty in art, I would suggest that the politicisation of beauty left beauty nowhere else to go.

Hickey’s response to the contemporary art world’s overwhelming resistance to beauty in the 1980s was to switch the blame from the market (which he regards as wholly benevolent) to art’s institutions (which he despises in its every detail) and swap the problem from that of beauty itself to the exclusion of beauty. Hickey doesn’t blame artists for what he sees as the underestimation of beauty in art; he blames art’s public institutions and the academic bureaucrats who he imagines set the agenda according to their own narrow self-interests.

Amelia Jones, identifying herself as ‘just the type of “art professional” Hickey would surely excoriate’, defends the critique of beauty by historicising and contextualising ‘beauty discourse’ in her 2002 book Aesthetics in a Multicultural Age. Jones roots out the ‘colonialist, sexist, and heterosexist assumptions’ of beauty discourse, insisting that the rhetoric of beauty ‘merely veils privilege’.

Although Hickey’s ‘vernacular beauty’ is meant to have ‘democratic appeal’, Jones is concerned ‘to interrogate the particular exclusions that are at work in any discourse that naturalizes “beauty” ’, seeing in the logic of aesthetic judgements of this type not a direct route between artwork and individual, but a historically, politically and culturally suffused product of social division and inequality. Beauty, in such circumstances, has to be loaded. And no less so than when its privileges are internalised to the point of invisibility.

As it stands, Jones’s complaint against Hickey has a lot to recommend it, specifically the central conviction of the hermeneutics of suspicion that the social inscribes itself into individual conduct. And yet, Jones’s critique expresses this modern predicament too forcefully – in too deterministic a fashion. Beauty is not simply a cryptic double for privilege, exclusion and power.

By callingindividualism, or rather, the unmediated sovereign individual into question, the hermeneutics of suspicion does not thereby merely replace talk about individuals with talk about society (a hermeneutics of social certainties); it draws out the tension between individual experience and the social structure. This tension is played out in the contemporary debate over beauty as it is mapped in James Elkins’ Art History Versus Aesthetics. Over and again, a tug-of-war is staged between those who, like Hickey, are interested in individual aesthetic experience, and those, like Jones, who want to historicise and contextualise individual experience socially and politically.

Similarly, at one end, contemporary Adornian philosophical aesthetics endorses aesthetic judgement against the social critique of art, while, at the other end, the critique of the beauty industry sees the individual’s insecurities as exploited for profit.

In fact, the whole debate on beauty and aesthetics today is best understood as revolving around the tension between the individual and society. The point is not to take sides but to rethink the question of beauty and debates on the aesthetic as rooted in the fundamental tensions, divisions and structures of modern, capitalist society.

Modernity is characterised, in Max Weber’s terms, by disenchantment, rationalisation and bureaucracy. Standardisation, efficiency, methodicalness and hard work combine in modernity to produce what Weber, in his 1904-05 The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. called the ‘specific and peculiar rationalism of Western culture’

Weber sees rationalisation embedded primarily within the two dominant social structures of modern society – the capitalist economy and its state. According to Weber, individuals within such enterprises and institutions do not just happen to act instrumentally, they are obliged to do so. Which is why Weber describes the fate of the modern individual as constrained by the rationality of economic acquisition as if by an ‘iron cage’, which Adorno later rechristened the ‘totally administered society’.

Rational calculation structures the actions, events and things in the modern world, ultimately including the consciousness, feelings and pleasures of those who live in it. The key social relations of modern life – buyers and sellers, managers and workers, experts and clients, and so on – bring individuals together through anonymous processes of organisation, mediated by forms of rationality. Even the care industries are accounted for, monitored and managed in a unitised, anonymous and instrumental manner.

Rather than detecting these social forces behind the back of beauty, therefore, we can expect beauty itself to be transformed internally by the rise of disenchantment, rationalisation and bureaucracy and the historical marginalisation of ritual, myth, metaphysics and magic. This is why, for instance, Modernism either eliminated or streamlined beauty to steer clear of the suspiciously decorative.

Stripped of traditional relations and forms of community, the bulk of modern sociality is markedly asocial. Competition, rivalry, antagonism, instrumentality and exploitation are characteristic of the salient structural relations of contemporary society. Not only does subjectivity adapt to such conditions, it is turned into an object of instrumental reason.

Kant’s philosophy of beauty stands uncomfortably at the cusp of this modern world, no longer able to presume the individual subject’s asocial sovereignty, Kant labours to regulate a space for uncorrupted subjectivity by identifying all the major threats to it and then systematically eliminating them from aesthetic judgement properly conducted. For Kant, the subjective was, if adequately protected, a route to universality but for alienated modern social life, the subjective was now framed by a peculiarly asocial version of social life.

Beauty’s version of modern asociality is fully formed when its function is to express cultural and social distinctions as natural or subjective ones. To perpetuate this ideological fiction requires a concept of the subject that seems to exist independently of social forces – one that can be universalised without suspicion. Historically, this subjective position has belonged to those who regard their taste as educated, cultivated and true. Only those who benefit from the cultural profits of aesthetic distinction have an interest in the fiction that beauty originates in subjective judgement and culminates in universal taste. That is known in economics as securing a monopoly for one’s own private interests.

Beauty might seem like something that we know when we see it, but the hermeneutics of suspicion refers such experiences to hidden motives, unintended consequences, structural conditions and spurious rationalisations – in short, the economies of taste. We continue to see beauty around us but this can no longer be the kind of elevated experience that might stand outside ordinary disputes, hierarchies and tensions. I want to call this historical process the secularisation of beauty.

The philosophy of beauty from Plato to Kant may have been ethically charged but it did not theorise how individual pleasures, choices and tastes are always unwittingly charged with social content. Beauty becomes secular through the same historical process by which art sheds its aura. As social relations take on an anonymous, mechanised and abstract manner, beauty itself becomes subject to rationality, commodity exchange and calculation. Beauty gets tied up with design, style and marketing. Losing its innocence in this way, beauty comes to feel saccharine or even as violent. At the same time beauty loses its advantage over vulgarity, primitivism, functionalism or any number of beauty’s rivals. Within Modernism, beauty has no more to recommend it than the chaotic, the accidental, the miserable, the ruined or the overlooked.

Beauty has become utterly contentious. Instead of being an aesthetic category of experience in which subjective feelings of pleasure are expressed, beauty has been fragmented – no judgement of beauty can be made without it being compared with equivalent judgements made by people with different racial, gender, class or cultural inscriptions. This is why the secularisation of beauty is necessarily and irreversibly also the politicisation of beauty. No single code or measure of beauty can be asserted because this would always be thought of, within the modern conditions associated with the hermeneutics of suspicion, as privileging one sector of society or one culture over all others.

If this leads to aesthetic relativism, that is only because the covert social processes that have made beauty seem to be singular and universal have at last been made transparent and open to critique. But we need to be clear about something: Hickey’s revival of beauty would not liberate anybody from the established regime of intellectual taste if, as was the case before avantgardism, art’s institutions were dominated by an authorised version of beauty. What is more, Hickey’s liberatory version of beauty, which seems to place the individual in an unmediated relation to the artwork, would only be possible if (and only if) individuals derived their tastes, feelings and pleasures entirely spontaneously, subjectively and asocially – ie in ways that seemed natural before the 18th Century and became naïve and improbable after then.

Modern social relations bring about two contradictory conceptions of beauty, one is the conviction that it is a purely private, subjective experience, and the other that beauty is, like all subjective experiences, socially inscribed. Each, in effect, represents one side of the tension between individual and society that structures modern capitalism. To choose one of them is to fail to see how beauty has been transformed immanently by the forces of modern alienation.

Our understanding of beauty can no longer assume (or insist on) the individual’s autonomy to make judgements without unintended consequences or to take pleasure without risking structural and ideological complicity and culpability. At the same time, the reduction of the individual to the social does not adequately register the modern tension between individual and society. Beauty is political not despite the fact that it feels subjective but precisely because it feels subjective. Beauty enters us into a world of dispute, contention and conflict at the very moment when we feel to be at ease.

The Counter-Promise of Ugliness

Why is it that we have seen the rehabilitation of beauty in recent years but ugliness continues to be neglected? How could the revival of beauty, by writers such as Dave Hickey and Elaine Scarry, not inevitably revive discussion of ugliness? If we suspect that, in principle, we cannot isolate one from the other, we cannot help but observe that, in practice, they have been utterly divorced by those who are championing beauty today. This absence of ugliness in contemporary thinking needs to be explained – especially if the absence of ugliness seems to be desirable, as it does to Peter Schjeldahl, who in the late-1990s wrote, “There is something crazy about a culture in which the value of beauty becomes controversial”._
Two writers stand out for their attention to ugliness in recent years. Umberto Eco followed up his historical study of beauty with a companion book on ugliness and Mark Cousins spent a year in 1994-5 analyzing ugliness for his lecture series at the Architectural Association. Eco introduces his largely visual anthology of ugliness by observing that, while philosophers and artists have consistently attended to the question of beauty, “almost no one ever devoted a treatise of any length to ugliness”. The current revival of beauty fails to rectify this. On the contrary, it actively obstructs this task in order to maintain beauty’s monopoly on art and aesthetics.
“Attributions of beauty or ugliness”, Eco says, “are often due not to aesthetic but to socio-political criteria”. This is not to be taken simply as a statement of fact; it is a manifesto in miniature. Eco pursues ugliness not as a fixed, abstract idea but as a constantly shifting idea that is always “relative to various historical periods of various cultures”. His book restricts itself to mapping these specific iterations. Eco is close to writers like Dominic Willsdon who argue for an ‘aesthetics-at-large’ following J.L. Austin’s wish: “if only we could forget for a while about the beautiful and get down instead to the dainty and the dumpy”. For Eco, there is no such thing as ugliness, only this ugliness here, and that ugliness there.
In fact, ugliness does not make itself present in his book until Eco considers the ‘redemption of ugliness’ in Romanticism and the ‘victory of ugliness’ with the avant-garde. Before that the book charts ugliness only through monsters, martrys, the devil, witches, death and various kinds if grotesquerie. Eco’s strict empiricism is ultimately inadequate, preventing him from detecting historical transformations and their social causes. This is why he never says that ugliness is, in fact, a modern concept.
Cousins does not suffer from Eco’s relativism. He argues, on the contrary, that ugliness has its own integral characteristics. It is a specific kind of excess. It is not the negative of beauty, nor the absence of beauty, but the experience of something being in the wrong place (and of not having a right place to be). Drawing on Mary Douglas’ anthropological analysis of dirt and taboo, Cousins argues that ugliness is best understood in terms of the concept of the stain, which is linked to sin and contamination. “The ugly object should not be there”, he says, for the very specific reason that it “is the obstacle which stands in the way of desire”. Ugliness is a trauma. “The trauma, for the subject, is occasioned by the sudden appearance of stuff, the stuff which threatens to overwhelm and engulf the subject, and to contaminate the subject with its own lack of meaning.”
Cousins gives us ugliness at retail, so to speak. It is a valuable theory that we will draw on later but it does not – in fact, cannot – explain how ugliness signifies within an aesthetic economy. Eco relativizes ugliness in history, while Cousins dehistorizes it: both isolate ugliness from what we could call its synchronic structure. This is what Althusser called ‘conjunctural’ analysis. Badiou insists on this as the only way to avoid ‘fatal abstractions’ such as ‘nation’, ‘democracy’, ‘human rights’ and ‘evil’. Beauty is one of these fatal abstractions. Eco and Cousins do their best to raise ugliness to the same status. But we will not understand ugliness without grasping the hierarchical relation that ties it permanently but unhappily with beauty.
If beauty and ugliness can both be regarded as occupying the same visual spectrum, albeit at opposite ends, it must be added that ugliness does not carry the kind of ideological force that beauty does. Beauty, Stendhal famously commented, is the promise of happiness. Adorno destabilized this idea by saying that beauty’s promise is perpetually broken (which is a way of saying that its promise is ideological), but the Frankfurt School continued to link beauty to the good life albeit one that can never actually be lived except as a dream of an impossible reconciliation. So, even in an ugly world beauty holds the ideological advantage over ugliness. Ugliness, which does not have the same promise as beauty, has not been tangled up in the ideological structures that provide the habitat for beauty. Does ugliness, then, carry a counter-promise?
Elaine Scarry, a liberal philosopher from the USA, neither considers the counter-promise of ugliness, nor regards beauty’s promise as broken: ie she does not treat beauty as ideological. She imagines the ideological critique of beauty to be a wretched attempt to ask us to ‘give up beauty altogether’. This is horrific to her because she believes that beauty is closely aligned to ethics. Scarry claims that beauty assists us in our attention to justice. Drawing on etymology rather than social science, she suggests that the concept of fairness is inextricably tied to the experience of the fair (in the now old-fashioned usage of something pleasant in appearance). Beauty for Scarry is not so much the promise of happiness as the training ground of ethical living. Simply put, the experience of beauty is affirmed because Scarry believes that it builds ethical character. This is part of the meaning of her assertion that ‘beauty begets copies’: the individual who admires beauty seeks to become more like the beautiful object.
To the revivalists of beauty an injustice has occurred. Why can’t we have beauty? Why must we allow the radicals and the avant-gardists to take it away from us? Beauty is good, isn’t it? Roger Scruton, the English conservative, also speaks incessantly of ethics when he attends to questions of beauty, saying that beauty is as “firmly rooted in the scheme of things as goodness”. “It speaks to us, as virtue speaks to us, of human fulfillment: not of things that we want, but of things that we ought to want, because human nature requires them.” Scruton, like Scarry, generates a universalist and aspirational account of beauty uncannily like Matthew Arnold did or the Victorians. Culture with a capital ‘C’ tries ‘not to make what each raw person may like the rule by which he fashions himself”, Arnold said, “but to draw ever nearer to a sense of what is indeed beautiful, graceful, and becoming, and to get the raw person to like that’. The current revival of beauty merely softens the tone without losing any of the aggression of this Arnoldian hierarchy.
There is a thinly veiled politics to the revival of beauty. To speak of beauty in terms of character and ethics is to trade-in the promise of happiness for the production of social complicity. In short, a call to order. Scarry, Scruton and the rest dredge up the Victorian rhetoric of art’s social utility analyzed by Tony Bennett in ‘Culture, a Reformer’s Science’. The art museum is described by Bennett in Foucauldian terms as a ‘technology of domination’ among the ‘new forms of social management frameworks in which individuals will voluntarily regulate their own behaviour’. Bennett discovers an ’emerging ascendency of the view that art and culture might be governmentally deployed as civilizing agencies directed at the population as a whole’. In fact, aesthetics came to have a two-tier structure, with civilizing rituals for the poor and the freeplay of aesthetic capacity for the educated. As such, cultural division does not exclude the rabble but assigns them a subordinate place within aesthetic experince itself.
We can begin to outline a political rift between beauty and ugliness. They are not articulated as opposed to one another, certainly not in any transparent or systematic theory of their differing qualities. Rather, the politics is played out in the division between that which has a discourse, beauty, and that which does not. Ugliness is off the map. It would be a mistake to think that ugliness was left unmentioned by accident or as a result of some kind of bourgeois blindness. It makes more sense to understand ugliness as being accorded the place of that which has nothing to say for it. As such, the political opposition between beauty and ugliness is not felt as political at all, but as the self-evident, correct and natural affirmation of beauty and the equally self-evident rejection of ugliness. Beauty is good, ugliness is bad: this is the kind of opposition that needs no explanation, no theory, no debate. Or rather, this is the kind of ideology that has secured itself a place within the hearts and minds of all right thinking individuals. This means that attending to ugliness must inevitably be a political act.
Beauty is ideological, but it is not immediately clear whether ugliness is ideological too. Does ugliness refer to a part of the aesthetic spectrum that can never be satisfactorily incorporated or instrumentalized? Is ugliness aesthetic or does it disturb the subject in a way that prevents disinterested judgement and pensive spectatorship? Scarry, Scruton and others make no bones about the ideological force of beauty. Instead of talking about ideology they talk about cultivating character. Marx clearly stated that the ideologists “stand beside their class” and that their ideas are “beyond social practices” – that is to say, what makes ideology so powerful, so effective, is precisely that it reproduces society in the very act of aspiring to its highest, impossible values that stand beyond that society. Ugliness is not ideological in this sense.
Mark Hutchinson and Nicola Cotton curated a small touring show on ugliness in 2002 at London Print Studio and Djangoly Art Centre with works by David Burrows, Beagles and Ramsay, Mat Collishaw, Margarita Gluzberg, John Isaacs, David-John Newman, Lindsay Seers and Mari Sunna. ‘Nausea: encounters with ugliness’, was heavily indebted to Cousins’ lectures on ugliness but the curators were strategic enough to position the exhibition against beauty’s hegemony in art. “The ugly is a trope that threatens to dissolve symbolic distinctions”, Hutchinson wrote in the catalogue, deliberately merging the language of Lacanian psychoanalysis with a Benjaminian critique of cultural hierarchy. “The ugly”, he said, “both threatens death and promises to fulfil utopian longing”. Specifically, ugliness “contains the threat to destroy art altogether, in the name of that which does not have a proper place”. The work in the show was split between bodily ugliness on the one hand (in the hairiness of Gluzberg’s drawings, the corpses of Isaacs, and the cancerous flowers of Collishaw), and a more social ugliness on the other hand (in the meticulously violent works of David Burrows and the provocative vulgarity of Beagles and Ramsay) with Seers and Sunna exhibiting both tendencies. The former may have the aroma of threat, but it is the latter which takes up the fight of the avant-garde which brought ugliness to bear on art and taste.
Francis Picabia’s ‘Monster’ paintings are about as ugly as any art has ever been. Painted in the mid-twenties when Dada had been overtaken by Surrealism, Picabia snubbed both by throwing these spanners in the works. If Dada works had been discordant, incompetent, vulgar and crude before, with the ‘Monster’ paintings Picabia outdid himself, and his whole generation. Most examples of art initially considered ugly by their conservative contemporaries, like Impressionism, eventually become widely accepted as beautiful or tasteful. Not Picabia’s ‘Monsters’. Partly this is because they were not made with an alternative aesthetic, a sensitivity to an unrecognised and unredeemed kind of beauty. Picabia was a trouble-maker and his ‘Monster’ paintings were meant to be ugly. Their ugliness, in the terms set out by Cousins, asserts them as obstacles that have no place in the order of things. It is a badge of their protest.
The nearest equivalent to Picabia that we have today is John Russell. Art historians in the future will not look back incredulously at our judgement of Russell’s ‘orgiastic’ images as ugly. Jonathan Jones loves his work, which is usually a bad sign, but what he loves is their ‘hyperbolic overactive pop monstrosity’. These works will not suddenly reveal themselves to future generations as beautiful after all, once the limitations of our taste have been breached. No, these works are ugly with a purpose. Russell produces gruesome displays of horror like the Chapman brothers, whose work is also ugly in the critical sense that I am developing here. But Russell’s work is ugly twice over, once in the monstrosity it depicts and twice in the monstrosity it acts out in its materiality. In other words, they are ugly in precisely the sense that baffles Schjeldahl. Russell is not taken in by Schjeldahl’s commonsense advocacy of beauty. His works, in all their teeth-clenching audacity, have taken sides with the counter-promise of ugliness.
Today artists pursue the challenge to art without restricting themselves to the pictorial or questions of style and visual taste. Bad taste has gone social. Mark McGowan, Santiago Sierra and Artur Zmijewski are key figures in the new social ugliness of contemporary art. And when you do ugly things to participants, members of the public, or yourself, then this amplifies the disgust felt towards ugliness. Unlike artists who depict ugliness or make ugly art, those who perform ugly acts have no place to hide. This is, at once, their greatest promise and their greatest danger. We should not retract the anger we feel towards the socially ugly – cruelty, manipulation, exploitation, etc – simply on account that, in this instance, it is art. However, following Hardt and Negri’s distinction between biopower and biopolitics, we need to discriminate within the socially ugly between the ugliness of domination and the ugliness of resistance. Police brutality, torture and hate-crime are ugly in the former sense, riots and revolutions are ugly in the latter sense. Uprisings have routinely been portrayed as more ugly than the repressions that restore ‘law and order’. And this is why it is easy to lose sight of the fact that it is only the ugliness of resistance that contains the counter-promise to beauty.
The difference between these two types of ugliness is temporarily monumentalized by Kryzstof Wodiczko (with Adam Whiton and Sung Ho Kim) in “The Tijuana Projection” from 2001. New technology was used to give voice and visibility to the women who work in the “maquiladora” industry in Tijuana. A headset was designed to integrate a camera and a microphone connected to two projectors and loudspeakers that transmitted the testimonies live for an audience of more than 1,500 local people. The women’s testimonies highlighted work related abuse, sexual abuse, family disintegration, alcoholism, and domestic violence through public projections on the 60-foot diameter facade of the Omnimax Theater at the Centro Cultural Tijuana(CECUT).
The ugliness here is firstly the trauma suffered by the women but also in what Wodiczko calls the ‘fearless speech’ of protest. Wodiczko is opposed to the the utilisation of art in gentrification and place-making, which he calls ‘beautification as uglification’. Trauma and protest is an antidote to this objectionable beauty because they create a rupture in the social fabric that could be described in the terms laid out by Cousins in his account of ugliness as the sudden appearance of stuff that cannot be contained by any surface.
Wodiczko’s work is uplifting precisely because it prefers the counter-promise of ugliness to the broken promise of beauty. The revival of beauty, I would argue, is a revival of the Victorian idea of art as a civilized and civilizing experience. At its core, indeed, the revival of beauty is the reassertion of a lost but cherished reconciliation in the form of a depoliticization of cultural division in which opposition is replaced with a self-evident hierarchy. What is cherished most in beauty is that it simultaneously allows the educated individual to be a liberal and civilized subject while it makes demands of the dispossessed and alienated to regulate themselves. Ugliness does not make us good. And this is one of the reasons why ugliness has not been revived along with beauty in recent years. This is also why ugliness contains its own counter-promise. Not the promise of happiness but the promise of resisting the half-baked promise of beauty and then, through its fearless rupture, paving the way for a fuller universal happiness.

Reproduction, Interns and Unpaid Labour

Two very important political debates, the issue of (largely) women’s unpaid ‘reproductive’ or domestic labour and the issue of unpaid interns, have revived debates on unpaid labour within capitalism. I want to address these two campaigns by way of a wider discussion of unpaid labour.

Since the worker in capitalist society participates in a social division of labour, the individual does not directly produce the means of subsistence that must be consumed in order to live (ie to reproduce the worker’s capacity for labour, or labour-power). The worker engages in exchange in order to consume the goods necessary to life that he or she does not produce. In this sense, the purpose of wage labour from the perspective of the worker is the capacity to consume the goods produced by others. The purpose of wage labour from the perspective of the capitalist, however, is to produce profit. Since both wages and profits take the form of money it could appear as if the worker and the capitalist are after the same thing (with the difference, perhaps, that the capitalist is just better at it). But the economic difference between wages and profit is that the one includes an unpaid portion and the other includes an unearned portion.

Capitalism reproduces itself by augmenting value derived from unpaid labour. Marx says the working day can be divided into two portions, one in which the worker produces the value equivalent to their own reproduction (assuming equilibrium in the labour market, this is equal to their wage), and another portion, in which the wage-labourer continues to work, now producing value for the reproduction of the capitalist and the capitalist’s enterprise. During the first portion of the day, Marx says, the worker engages in ‘necessary labour’, and in the second portion, ‘surplus labour’. The value which surplus labour produces is surplus value. ‘The rate of surplus-value is therefore an exact expression for the degree of exploitation of labour-power by capital’. Surplus labour – ie unpaid labour – is the secret to capitalist ‘wealth production’.

The ratio of necessary labour to surplus labour – or the share that goes to the worker compared to the share that goes to the capitalist – gives the rate of exploitation. And the very concept of exploitation, in Marx, is therefore fundamentally tied to the concept, which he coined, of ‘unpaid labour’. Marx concept of ‘unpaid labour’ is historically significant because with it, for the first time in the history of economics and politics, it is possible to develop a general theory of exploitation, linking slavery, serfdom and wage labour without taking anything away from the specific social conditions under which they each differently produce wealth for others. Marx spells out the differences in mode of exploitation in a pamphlet in 1891, ‘Wage Labour and Capital’:

“Labour-power was not always a commodity … Labour was not always wage labour … The slave did not sell his labour-power to the slave-owner … The slave, together with his labour-power, was sold to his owner once and for all. He is a commodity … but his labour-power is not his commodity. The serf sells only a portion of his labour-power. It is not he who receives wages from the owner of the land; it is rather the owner of the land who receives a tribute from him. … The free labourer … auctions off eight, 10, 12, 15 hours of his life … to the highest bidder, to the owner of raw materials, tools, and the means of life – ie to the capitalist.”

To link slavery, serfdom and wage-labour through the concept of unpaid labour might, at first, seem like an error, since slaves are not paid at all and serfs appear to be the ones making payments rather than receiving them. But Marx explains:

“On the basis of the wages system even the unpaid labour seems to be paid labour. With the slave, on the contrary, even that part of his labour which is paid appears to be unpaid”.

That is to say, the slave’s labour produces the means of her own life as well as the life of the slave-owner, and in this sense the slave’s food, lodging, clothes and so on, which appear in the form of a gift from the slave-owner, are produced through necessary labour by the slave. In this sense, the slave, like the wage-labourer, works part of the day for herself and part of the day for the slave-owner – ie part paid and part unpaid.

To the extent that the current campaigns against unpaid labour consist of the demand for wages (as well as rights, recognition and so on) they appear to confront the problem of exploitation by opposing absolute exploitation (ie 100% unpaid labour) with relative exploitation (ie less than 100% unpaid labour). This is therefore a pragmatic demand within the terms of capitalist exploitation, not an anti-capitalist campaign. This does not diminish the political urgency of the immediate need to address the issue of unpaid labour in capitalism, but it is worth reminding ourselves at the outset that wage labour is not a cure for capitalism. Wage-labour is a cure for slavery, since the wage-labourer is not a commodity but the seller of a commodity, but wage-labour is not the antidote to unpaid labour. This last point may sound like a contradiction in terms, so let me explain what I mean.

Within the debate on unpaid labour in domestic work and internships a false opposition between unpaid work and wage labour has developed. While the opposition between paid and unpaid work is necessary, it should not be conflated with the apparent opposition between the waged and the unwaged. Wage labour is not the opposite of unpaid labour, since wage-labour is made up of both necessary and surplus labour (ie the paid and unpaid portions). Unpaid labour unites the wage-labourer, the home-maker, the stay at home parent, the unpaid intern and the paid intern, not to mention the slave and the serf. As such, the campaign against unpaid work must also be a campaign against wage-labour.

During the neoliberal period we have seen the privatisation, commodification and commercialisation of activities that were previously protected from market forces and profiteering. Examples of recent commodification include childcare, laundry, professional home cleaning services, the professionalization of amateur sports, the commercial replacement of parlour games with branded games, the development of supervised soft play centres that replace public parks and street corners, and intellectual property, copyright, patent and price tags being placed on information and knowledge. Rather than the accomplishment of ‘wages for housework’, what has transpired is, typically, the socially uneven commodification of housework and the creation, therefore, of a labour market in which wealthier households pay (mostly) poorer women to do the housework. Some cleaners are wage-labourers (paid by cleaning companies) and some cleaners are independent workers (paid for a service by the consumer), and most if not all cleaners will also clean their own home without any payment at all.

In a society organised around economic exchange the unequal distribution of money, especially the absence of money altogether, has a specific social meaning. Within such a society the demand for money (higher wages, public funding, bonuses, payouts, fines and compensation included) is more than an economic act; it signifies recognition, status, esteem, entitlement, power, affection etc). Therefore, the demand for money is, among other things, also an alienated and distorted expression of the demand for recognition etc. However, the current campaigns against unpaid labour in domestic work and internships risks merging the political demand for full participation in social life with the (neoliberal) expansion of market forces, commodification and financial incentives into every aspect of life. The financialisation of higher education, for instance, is a neoliberal assault on the ‘right to education’ expressed as a seemingly superior right of the consumer to demand the commodity that they purchase with vast amounts of money. Can the campaign against unpaid labour by reunited with the campaign for free universal higher education or does it inadvertently undermine non-monetary and non-market systems of social organisation?

In order to assess the politics of domestic reproduction and unpaid internships we need a comprehensive account of the full spectrum of unpaid labour, unearned income, unemployment, uncommodifed labour and decommodification. Absolute exploitation must be resisted but not by contrasting unpaid labour with wage-labour or by conflating free activity with unpaid labour. Paying women to do the chores that ought to be shared by the whole family as free collective activity does nothing to address the unequal distribution of chores between men, women and children. Paying interns during the era in which internships have become a standard business practice of absolute exploitation is a valid demand as far as it goes, but it risks completing the passage of the internship from an educational technique into nothing but a form of employment. The point is not for interns to be paid but for students to be given sufficient material support as a right.