The Beauty of a Social Problem by Walter Benn Michaels - Read Online
The Beauty of a Social Problem
0% of The Beauty of a Social Problem completed



Bertolt Brecht once worried that our sympathy for the victims of a social problem can make the problem’s “beauty and attraction” invisible. In The Beauty of a Social Problem, Walter Benn Michaels explores the effort to overcome this difficulty through a study of several contemporary artist-photographers whose work speaks to questions of political economy.

Although he discusses well-known figures like Walker Evans and Jeff Wall, Michaels’s focus is on a group of younger artists, including Viktoria Binschtok, Phil Chang, Liz Deschenes, and Arthur Ou. All born after 1965, they have always lived in a world where, on the one hand, artistic ambition has been synonymous with the critique of autonomous form and intentional meaning, while, on the other, the struggle between capital and labor has essentially been won by capital. Contending that the aesthetic and political conditions are connected, Michaels argues that these artists’ new commitment to form and meaning is a way for them to depict the conditions that have taken US economic inequality from its lowest level, in 1968, to its highest level today. As Michaels demonstrates, these works of art, unimaginable without the postmodern critique of autonomy and intentionality, end up departing and dissenting from that critique in continually interesting and innovative ways.  
Published: University of Chicago Press an imprint of UChicagoPress on
ISBN: 9780226210438
List price: $24.00
Availability for The Beauty of a Social Problem by Walter Benn Michaels
With a 30 day free trial you can read online for free
  1. This book can be read on up to 6 mobile devices.


Book Preview

The Beauty of a Social Problem - Walter Benn Michaels

You've reached the end of this preview. Sign up to read more!
Page 1 of 1

The Beauty of a Social Problem

The Beauty of a Social Problem

Photography, Autonomy, Economy

Walter Benn Michaels

The University of Chicago Press

Chicago and London

Walter Benn Michaels is professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 60637

The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., London

© 2015 by The University of Chicago

All rights reserved. Published 2015.

Printed in the United States of America

24 23 22 21 20 19 18 17 16 15 1 2 3 4 5

ISBN-13: 978-0-226-21026-1 (cloth)

ISBN-13: 978-0-226-21043-8 (e-book)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226210438.001.0001

Library of Congress Control Number: 2015936984

♾ This paper meets the requirements of ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992 (Permanence of Paper).

For Ruth Leys and Michael Fried


List of Illustrations


1 Formal Feelings

2 Neoliberal Aesthetics

3 The Experience of Meaning

4 The Art of Inequality: Then and Now

5 Never Again, or Nevermore







1. Jeff Wall, Mimic (1982)

2. Viktoria Binschtok, Wand I (2006)

3. Viktoria Binschtok, Das große Medieninteresse (2008)

4. Phil Chang, Two Sheets of Thick Paper on Top of Two Sheets of Thin Paper (2010)

5. Phil Chang, Monochrome. Exposed (2011)

6. Arthur Ou, View 1 (2008)

7. Brian Ulrich, Circuit City, Ponderosa Steakhouse (2008)

8. Amanda Gordon, Liz Deschenes’s photograms reflect the crowd (2012)


1. Viktoria Binschtok, Spektakel (2008)

2. Frank Eugene, The Horse (ca. 1890)

3. Arthur Ou, Earthworks 1 (2007)

4. Arthur Ou, Untitled [Screen Test] 1 (2006)

5. Arthur Ou, On Every New Thing There Lies Already the Shadow of Annihilation (2006)

6. Brian Ulrich, Montgomery Ward Door Pulls (2011)

7. Arthur Ou, Test Screen 2 (2011)

8. Brian Ulrich, Retail 15, Chicago, Illinois (2002)

9. Brian Ulrich, Randall Park Mall (2008)

10. Brian Ulrich, Dominicks (2008)

11. Brian Ulrich, Is This Place Great or What? (2012)

12. Walker Evans, Mrs. Frank Tengle (1936)

13. August Sander, Children Born Blind (ca. 1930)

14. Paul Strand, Blind Woman, New York (1916)

15. Walker Evans, Frank Tengle Family (1936)

16. Walker Evans, Allie Mae Burroughs (1936)

17. Walker Evans, Tengle Family Home (1936)

18. Michael Williamson, Pictures of Fred and Sadie Ricketts (1986)

19. August Sander, Photographer (1925)

20. August Sander, Porter (ca. 1929)

21. August Sander, SS-Hauptsturmführer (1937)

22. August Sander, Death Mask of Erich Sander (1944)

23. Walker Evans, Floyd Burroughs and Tengle Children (1936)

24. Walker Evans, Frank Tengle, Bud Fields, and Floyd Burroughs (1936)

25. Liz Deschenes, Untitled (2012)

26. August Sander, Unemployed (1928)

27. Sergej Strunnikow, Soja (1941)

28. James Welling, Poe (2007)


1. The top decile income share, 1917–2012

2. Net productivity and real hourly compensation of production/nonsupervisory workers, 1948–2012

3. Median family net worth in dollars

4. Economy-wide returns on invested capital (ROIC), 1965–2009


This book began with a desire to write about what seemed to me some aesthetically ambitious works of art. At first, that desire was mainly reactive. I had just written two books, one primarily theoretical (The Shape of the Signifier, 2004) and the other entirely political (The Trouble with Diversity, 2006), and I wanted to write about art. But then, moving beyond the reactive, I started seeing some photographs and reading some books by younger artists whose work seemed to me really interesting. I wanted to write in particular about them.

What attracted me was the simultaneous assertion of form and meaning—an interest in what it meant for something to have form and to be meaningful—and it was in light of this interest that the age of the artists seemed significant. All of them were born after 1965 (and most in the 1970s), which is to say they were born and raised and began to study and produce art in a world where artistic ambition—especially insofar as form might be thought to establish the work’s autonomy, or meaning might be understood as a function of the artist’s intentions—was often identified with the critique of both. It’s clear not only that all of the artists I write about below have been in important ways influenced by this critique, but also that sometimes (Tom McCarthy would be the exemplary instance) they understand themselves as completely committed to it.

But it’s also clear (anyway, that’s part of my argument) that their work is also doing something different, by which I mean that their aesthetic ambitions engage and push beyond the critique of autonomy and intentionality, the (naïve) valorization of the subject, and the (more sophisticated but just as bad) valorization of the subject position—beyond, more generally, the materialism-as-literalism of much recent theoretical writing and contemporary art practice. So part of what’s interesting about these artists is not only that their work would have been unimaginable without those theoretical commitments, but that it importantly both departs and dissents from them.

The second thing that interested me (and here, again, age mattered) was that these artists have from the start been making art in an economy defined by an almost unprecedented rise in economic inequality. The Gini coefficient is a measure of inequality where 0 represents perfect equality (everybody makes the same) and 1 represents perfect inequality (one person makes everything). In 1968, the US Gini number was 0.38; by 2011, it was almost 0.48. Of course, the rise in inequality isn’t the only marker of what is now standardly called the neoliberal turn, but, for my purposes, it is a crucial one because it highlights the importance of the conflicts that are constitutive of that turn. For example, the productivity of American labor is up by 80 percent since the end of the 1970s, while average wages (despite being inflated by the very high salaries of top management) are up by only about 8 percent. So labor’s share of income is down while corporate profits—both as a percentage of income and in absolute numbers—are higher than they’ve ever been. Capital’s gain has been labor’s loss.¹

And (this is the other part of my argument) it’s in this context of structural conflict that the emergence in art (or at least in the work of some artists) of a new commitment to form and meaning as technologies of autonomy has new political meaning. The separation of the work from the world—from its subject (which is what form does) and from its reader or beholder (which is what meaning does)—functions here as an emblem of the relation between classes (rather than between people or subject positions; that’s the importance of structure) and also of the escape from that relation, of the possibility of a world without class. So it’s by asserting its difference from the world that the work establishes its relation to the world.

The chapters that follow are an attempt to make both parts of this argument (the aesthetic and the political) and to make them more perspicuous and more concrete. Photography plays a crucial role because in photography the link to the world has also been identified with the primacy of the beholder’s response (think Barthes’s punctum as the reverse face of Peirce’s index), and so it’s in photography that we can see most vividly what it means to try to break that link and refuse that response. Hence, even in those chapters that are organized around literary texts, the photograph—because of the particular problems it poses for art and because of the solutions it thereby makes possible—remains central.

Obviously, my goal here is not to defend the claims of photography as art; it’s been a very long time since anyone (not counting Roger Scruton) has denied those claims (although Barthes’s indifference to photography as art is not insignificant). Less obviously, although I take their work very seriously, my goal is also not (or at least not primarily) to make a case for the merit of the very small number of photographers (and writers) I discuss. It is instead to produce an account of the relation between aesthetic autonomy and political economy today, to show the usefulness of a certain concept of class for understanding the formal ambitions of some recent art, and to show the usefulness of a certain concept of art for understanding a society organized and increasingly stratified by class. This usefulness is, inevitably, a restricted one. If what you want is a change in policy, you’re not likely to get it from art, and particularly not from the kind of formally ambitious art I describe here. But if what you want is a vision of the structures that produce both the policies we’ve got and the desire for alternatives to them, art is almost the only place you can find it.


Formal Feelings

The Death of a Beautiful Woman

Of all melancholy topics what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy? Death—was the obvious reply. And when, I said, is this most melancholy of topics most poetical? From what I have already explained at some length the answer here also is obvious—When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death then of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.¹

This passage from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Philosophy of Composition (1846) is also one of the first poems in Maggie Nelson’s Jane: A Murder (2005), a collection centered on the murder of Nelson’s aunt Jane in 1969, four years before Nelson herself was born. At the time and for a long while after, it was thought that Jane’s death was one of what were called the Michigan Murders, seven young women brutally killed in Washtenaw County, Michigan, over a period of two years. In 1970 a man had been arrested and convicted for what turned out to be the last of the murders; the assumption was that he had probably killed Jane too, and Jane itself is written on that theory. Almost literally as the book was going to press, however, Nelson learned that another man—with no connection to the Michigan Murders—had been arrested and accused of murdering Jane. Nelson’s subsequent book, a memoir called The Red Parts, is about the trial and conviction of that man, and Poe makes an appearance in it too. Watching a TV show (48 Hours Mystery) about the murder of a beautiful Peace Corps volunteer in Tonga (the producers of 48 Hours have given her a recording as part of their effort to get her to participate in a show about Jane), Nelson is taken aback to hear someone on the show explain his obsession with this crime by referring to Poe, who once declared the death of a beautiful woman to be the most poetic topic in the world.² But Poe is only incidental to The Red Parts; he is more central to Jane.

One way that Nelson herself imagines this centrality has importantly to do with Poe’s sexual poetic, which, she suggests in an interview, is an example of the ethically unsound practice of treating beautiful women as if their lives were more grievable because somehow more valuable than those of others.³ Hence it matters to her that Jane (unlike, say, the Peace Corps volunteer) was not particularly beautiful, and, at least partially to prove it, she puts Jane’s picture on the cover of the book (the only photo in the book, except for an author shot). But the picture plays another role as well, one that matches the other interest Nelson has in Poe. In The Philosophy of Composition, she tells the interviewer, Poe was describing glibly and perhaps notoriously facilely how to make the perfect poem (3). Glibly and facilely refer to the poem’s famous prescriptions (what’s the perfect amount of lines? Oh, 100 lines). But the ambition to make a perfect poem, which is, she says, also part of the fight of my book (3), is not so easily dismissed. The idea that a woman ought to be beautiful is one thing; the idea that a work of art ought to be perfect—that the beauty of the work of art is bound up with its perfection—is something else.

Nelson herself insists on this difference in the poem called A Philosophy of Composition (Reprise) that comes near the end of Jane (almost as near the end as A Philosophy of Composition comes near the beginning; it seems clear that Nelson means them to have a kind of bracketing effect). Does it matter if I tell you now / that Jane was not beautiful? the Reprise begins; it goes on to describe Jane, her skin white and chalky, her eyes set close together (215). But the fulcrum of the poem is where it switches from describing Jane to describing Nelson’s favorite photo of her: Her face and torso loom up / against a deep blue sky / a great, momentary albatross of cloud. . . . A bright block of light . . . Her face here is half bleached out, a function of the structure of the photograph, and the point is no longer that Jane is not beautiful but that the picture is: the last words of the poem are, The whole picture / is beautiful.

So the beauty of the photo is made out of someone who was not beautiful. More precisely, we will want to say that the kind of beauty the photo has has nothing to do with the kind of beauty the person it’s a photo of might or might not have. This is emphasized by Nelson’s insistence that it is the whole picture that is beautiful, where the invocation of the whole (especially, as we will see, in the context of Poe; his terms will be totality and unity) calls attention in particular to the form of the work of art, to its ambition to be perfect in a way no person can ever be. More particularly, we might say that just as the photograph of Jane must be made beautiful even though its subject is not, the poem Jane must be made into a whole even though the occasion of its production is loss—Jane’s death. So when Nelson thanks her teacher Mary Ann Caws for her faith . . . that pain has, or can at least sometimes find, form (223), she is describing the poem as an effort to turn her feeling into something else, to make her pain into poetry.

Of course, what exactly it might mean to find a form for pain is another question. Is the goal to find a way of expressing the pain? Or is it to find a way of overcoming the pain, of releasing oneself from it? In Poe, these questions are forestalled by the fact that the death of the beautiful woman is imagined as the subject of the poem instead of (rather than in addition to) its cause. Indeed, the whole point of the essay The Philosophy of Composition—or at least, the thing that made it so notorious—was its effort to separate the writing of the poem from its author’s feelings. The Raven was composed, Poe says, with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem, and the reason it’s about death is not because the poet is sad but because he wants to make his readers sad.⁴ The province of the poem, he says, is the effect of Beauty, which excites the sensitive soul to tears (1377). Thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones is Melancholy, and when you ask yourself, "Of all melancholy topics, what according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?, the answer is obvious: the death of a beautiful woman (1378–79). The speaker in The Raven will thus have experienced the pain (of sorrow for the lost Lenore) and the reader of The Raven will (hopefully) be moved to tears, but the writer of The Raven" remains calm.

Taken together, then, The Raven and The Philosophy of Composition function to disconnect the speaker of the poem from the poet, the subject of the poem from its origin—which is just the opposite of what Nelson does. And in this she repeats Whitman’s reading of Poe in Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking and Dickinson’s enactment of the relation between pain and form in After great pain (a formal feeling comes). In Whitman, it’s the disappearance of the female mockingbird and the boy’s identification with the now solitary male mockingbird that marks his birth as a poet: Demon or Bird . . . never more shall I cease perpetuating you, / Never more shall I escape, never more the reverberations, / Never more the cries of unsatisfied love be absent from me.⁵ Poetry here is produced by loss, and poems (the cries of unsatisfied love) are the never-ending (never more) reenactment both of the loss and of the poet’s effort to overcome it, to bring the she-bird back. Form follows feeling in Dickinson also, but here the function of the poem is not so much to repeat the feeling of loss as to eliminate feeling as such. The organs of feeling, the Nerves, sit ceremonious, like Tombs, and, as its Feet, mechanical, go round, the poem imagines its own formal structure as a kind of anesthetic, producing Quartz contentment, like a stone.

There is, then, in both of these texts something like a psychology of the poem and its origin; it arises out of loss or pain and it seeks either to reproduce and immortalize the consciousness of that loss (the cries of unsatisfied love) or to eliminate consciousness altogether—First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go. Jane too has its psychology, although it’s not precisely aligned with either of those options. Substantial sections of it are adapted from Jane’s diary, and the very first diary poem (also the first poem in the book, Dear) begins, I understand many people write for therapy—one’s own, while the very last poem (at least, before the Epilogue) ends,

Thank you. Therapy is over.


Janie (218)

The idea here is that writing about your feelings is a way of helping you cope with them, maybe more like working through than letting go, since even though the diary does have what Nelson describes as this kind of weird, very Emily Dickinson–esque thing where she leaves off with dashes, in the main, she says, it’s fairly trite (interview, 5).

But the fact that Janie, at least, imagines a curative power for writing doesn’t, of course, mean that Jane does. The last lines of the Epilogue (the last lines of the whole poem) are

Above her, the sun is still trying to burn through the mist. Strange, she thinks, how the sun so often appears as a pale circle, not the orgy of unthinkable fire that it is. (221)

Whether or not you are tempted to think of these lines as embodying both the attraction and the limits of the effort to find form for pain, they certainly do present an image of the disjunction between the form of the sun (a pale circle) and the unthinkable thing that it is. That disjunction is at the heart of After great pain, where the poem appears as the repression rather than the commemoration of the experience that occasioned it.⁷ But it’s also at the heart of Nelson’s effort (what she calls her fight) to make Jane. For if one way to imagine form is as a kind of mediation—the pale circle that makes visible the unthinkable violence of what is—another way is to imagine it as itself a kind of violence: the form was a fight, Nelson says, a fight to make something perfect. And when she goes on to joke that a less hip publisher than Soft Skull would have made her call the book Jane: An Elegy, instead of Jane: A Murder, she is marking both the proximity and the distinction between the two different acts that her parallel construction—Jane: An Elegy/Jane: A Murder—has redescribed as two different genres. They both require a death, but only the murder understands the poem itself as a weapon.

The point here is that a poem about Jane, like a photo of Jane, is obviously a way of remembering her, but a photo of Jane where the beauty of the whole picture replaces her lack of beauty is also a way of not remembering her, of replacing her with something else. The point would be exactly the same if Jane had been beautiful; a picture of something beautiful is obviously not the same thing as a beautiful picture. That’s why Poe insists, in effect, that even the beautiful woman has to die in order for the poem to be beautiful. And that’s why Poe and Nelson both invoke the ideal of perfection and why Nelson’s insistence on the beauty of the whole aligns her entirely with Poe’s declaration that Unity is the vital requisite in all works of art (1431). In fact, it is precisely because of the overwhelming importance of unity that Poe begins both The Philosophy of Composition and The Poetic Principle by considering the question of the poem’s length and insisting that the phrase ‘a long poem,’ is simply a flat contradiction in terms (1431).

The reason for this, he says in The Poetic Principle, is that a poem is deserving of its title only insofar as it excites the soul, and the soul can only take so much excitement—about half an hour[’s] worth. After that, it flags—fails—a revulsion ensues—and then the poem is, in effect, and in fact, no longer such. In The Philosophy of Composition, time is also crucial, but it’s defined less in relation to excitement than to attention. If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, Poe says, it necessarily dispenses with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression—for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world intervene, and everything like totality is at once destroyed (1375). Thus time is connected to unity because unity is understood to consist in the poem’s ability to make an impression on you or to have an effect on you, an effect that, when you stop reading, is necessarily dissipated. And totality functions as a marker of difference—between the work and the world, between the effects produced by the work of art and the effects produced by something else, between what is inside the work and what is outside it.

There is thus a difference between the question of whether the person needs to be beautiful and the question of whether the poem ought to be perfect—the person belongs to the world; the poem—at least insofar as it strives for perfection—doesn’t. And this difference might plausibly be understood as the difference between a set of ethical or even political concerns and a set of aesthetic ones. For example, the question of whether some lives are or should be more grievable, which is to say more valuable, than others might be understood as political in a way that the question of the possible beauty or perfection of the work of art is not. But this opposition (emptying the aesthetic of the political) is certainly not one that Nelson would herself accept, and, in fact, we might better understand the politics of the grievable as opposed not to the aesthetic but to another politics (a politics for which the question of grievability would not arise). And we might understand the aesthetic of perfection as opposed not to the political but to another aesthetic, an aesthetic defined by its repudiation of the commitments that accompany the entire intellectual apparatus of perfection.

Indeed, this aesthetic—the critique of perfection, of unity and totality—is today an entirely familiar one. We can see its origin in the terms suggested by Poe himself, that is, in his idea that it’s the unity of effect (1375) that’s spoiled when the affairs of the world interfere. For, from the standpoint of the twenty-first century—from the standpoint, that is, of a moment when the claim to unity has come to be identified with the claim to autonomy—unity and effect seem to stand in an aporetic relation to each other. Indeed, even in Poe, there’s a certain tension in his characterization of