Dada as a Lens to read Capital? Aphorisms Towards a Critical Aesthetic Theory of Political Economy

by Lukas Meisner


Capital's murder of art – and its burial of the bourgeoisie

Tragically, art lost itself the moment it was born. The moment it loosened its ties from the church of a transcendental God, it fell into the nets of material powers whose religion was secular. The less art was the victim of one client the more it became the victim of the anonymous crowd of the market. The less it needed to obey one style the more it became allegiant to the tastes of fashion – to Benjamin's “eternal return of the new”. The less art was the representational aura of clerical or political power the more it became the aesthetic self-sufficiency of the commodity. When art was transformed into design, from industrial to product to urban to subject design, it was transformed into ideal propaganda for the greater good of capitalism. As a result of this process, the immanent sublation of art in 'life' killed life by aestheticising its death. Art became the relic of three demiurges that are one: the death of god (transcendence), the death of the subject (rationality), and the death of the author (autonomy). With the murder of this trinity, the end of history got broadcast globally, and with it the end of utopia. In this sense, the salons of the 19th century were the last bourgeois refuge of art before it was exposed to learn from Las Vegas. The new centre around which art circulates ever since is not a centre but a constant loss of centres, or circulation itself: capital. Capital's latest macrocosmic restructuring, however, was its burial of the bourgeoisie – for which art since the avant-gardes gave and gives the formula.


The scream: Art's last rebellion

However fashionable one wanted to be in the second half of the 19th century, the capital-induced feeling of agony was not yet celebratable in cynical fashion. This agony was the agony of the bourgeoisie, and it was expressed culturally by the petty-bourgeois attitudes of the bohème. It was expressed as the neo-baroque of the fin de siècle – as the vanitas-repression we know as aestheticism. At the same time, agony started its internalisation by a kind of self-implosion of those internalising it – who thus broke free from the morbid lie of beauty. With this internalisation, expressionism was born. Its eruption was similarly an implosion; its extremist gesture – close to the synchronous anarchist violence – was the fear of imminent death. For example, Van Gogh's frantic religiosity may be deciphered as an existential psychologisation of the chiliasm that remains when capitalism takes off its liberal mask. If, in his work, the unmasked as a human comes about, it does so as self-condemnation. A cut-off ear appears to prove alienation to be objectively valid. In Munch's work, by contrast, alienation is not objectively valid but screamed out by a suffering subject on the brink of annulment. This is because, shock, in Munch, is a face. This face has not yet become a mask or a 'persona' as it has in James Ensor; nor is it already forced to disappear by becoming-puppet, like in de Chirico. Munch's faces – and this is the point – are still able to scream. His depiction of alienation is the artist in her last rebellion against reification. Whereas for Van Gogh, the only way to go on with(in) the objective asylum of reality is to wage an endless war of terror against himself, for Munch, the subjective factor of dread, vulnerability, and resistance still embodies a negativity which negates the negation it suffers from in actuality. This factor may be called the factor of modernism. It is a factor that – or so goes the hope – no postmodern irony, nostalgia, nor recycling can trivialise. To extract this factor from the art world, then, was the last threshold to be overcome before art and capital could properly merge. That task would soon be completed by the historic avant-gardes which abandoned – pace Peter Bürger – less late 19th century's decadently bourgeois aestheticism than its early modernist radical protest, which was: the scream.


The historic avant-gardes as ideological conjurers of a new capitalism

Whereas modernism was a mostly repelling reflection of modernisation (as industrialisation) in late bourgeois society, the avant-gardes were ideological conjurers of a new stage of the modernising tsunami: of a tsunami that washed away bourgeois culture itself. The superstructural tsunami of the historic avant-gardes, however, corresponded to the coming techno-economic tidal wave of the 20th century, consisting in mass production, mass consumption, and mass communication. In this sense, the avant-gardes were not outside but just ahead of a new mainstream – and they helped to clear its way also in the cultural sphere. At the latest with the neo-avantgardist 1968, then, capital's creatively destructive forces were liberated from their outdated bourgeois 'conditions of production'. Thereby, not only a new spirit of capitalism but a new capitalism was born – a capitalism realising the logic and logistic of capital on a more capital-friendly basis. Since it turned out that the bourgeoisie had values that were no longer conducive to capital, they had to be liquidated. This is because autonomy, rationality, or individuality are bourgeois values not very helpful to foster consumerist capitalism. Hence, to outdo the bourgeoisie on its own last frontier – culture – was a demand by capital, and it was realised by the historic avant-gardes. Of course, the victor of these combats against the bourgeois order was not any kind of ruling elite of artists either (à la Richard Florida's “creative class”). Rather, the victor was a dis-embedding economic regime which became highly dependent on the culturalisation of its one and only meta-norm, which is: capital's Schumpeterian logic of creative destruction. The winner, in short, was post-bourgeois capitalism with its concomitant postmodern ideology.


Capitalist nihilism and naïve anarchism

The postmodern art establishment tries to convince us that the early climax of the avant-gardes – Dada – was about laying bare the corruption of bourgeois morals: a corruption that had become obvious in World War I. Yet, Dada rather declared morals in and as such to be of no value whatsoever, thereby mirroring into the sphere of art what happened around it anyway. This, precisely, is an opportunist version of realism: Dada's anti-moralism began to directly reflect capitalist nihilism. Capitalist nihilism, however, is the valorisation process of capital value swallowing, progressively, all (cultural, normative, moral) values that are not capitalist yet. The avant-gardes' 'brave' move against morals, in this sense, was as “untimely” as Nietzsche's same move a few decades earlier. The only thing left to do after this delving into cynicism was to follow a cosmologically conceived naïve anarchism for which the end of self-determination equals the end of domination, since subjectivity is nothing but a disciplining function, and conscience nothing but a fatherly super-ego. Of course, such 'anarchism' must pretend that no societal infrastructure would be left after one withdrew from one's conscious, conscientious, responsive autonomy – as if desire or fantasy were somehow 'outside' of (consumerist!) society. Without a doubt, today's art world is dominated by this cynical version of “anarchism”, and its hegemony mimics capital's valorising devalorisation – or capitalist nihilism.


(Ko-)Merz: Transvaluation towards valorisation

Long before Pop Art, Dadaism served as the commercialisation of the art world, which it announced as the destruction of the work of art. When Kurt Schwitters equated Dada with (Ko-)“Merz”, the negative (destructive) was declared to be the positive (commodifying) side of the move. Thereby, the Dadaist “Gesamtweltbild” had not only identified but merged with the vicious circles of capital circulation. Thanks to Schwitters, it becomes obvious: Dada was less about the desacralisation of the art world than about the sacralisation of the world of capital. Here, we can retrace how a commodity's worth is able to rise beyond its 'profane' value between abstract labour and oligopolist price dictate, and towards finance. It does so by becoming sublime through an artist’s signature as the last step in the division of labour, which is the topping of mental work. 'Et voilà, nous avons une Fontain(e)!' Accordingly, Dada’s destruction of art was simultaneously the creation of capital. From then on, the less unique the art 'work' was as (a) work, the more unique (or beyond competition) it became as an asset. Within such destruction of art as its commodification, there lies the Nietzschean pathos of a “transvaluation of all values”. This transvaluation is, on bare level, a mega-boost in capital's valorisation following from the liquidation of the former boundary between art and economy. Only as a next step towards the full-fledged artistic construction of capital value, Schwitters’ and Duchamp’s commodity fetishisms were translated into Warhol's meta-market-propaganda (usually referred to as “advertisement”).


'Stunde Null' as a precondition of the postmodern

It should not be forgotten that hyper-modernisation as the epoch of the metropolis was the necessary precondition for postmodernity as the age of swarm technocracy. Without the former’s tabula rasa, the latter’s flattened simulacra would not have been possible. In fact, the communication technologies of the second half of the 20th century universalised the blasé attitude of the metropolis Simmel analysed with his Philosophy of Money around 1900 – leading into a hyper-cynical indifference of linguistic nihilism and semiotic relativism. Yet, long before that postmodernisation, it needed two world wars until material destruction was sufficient for a pure idealism of sign, advertisement, and corporate identity politics – of label, brand, and image – to count as (hyper-)real. Only when 'Stunde Null' had been reached, the noise of emptiness could silence the intelligibility of a trans-pre-historical space by abolishing time.


Capitalist Surrealism

The three main triggers for avant-gardism were urbanisation, new media, and world wars. Accompanying the emergence of the mega-political economy of multinationals replacing bourgeois political economy, Dada's role was to enact the shock of the megalo-polis on the bourgeoisie. Dada did so not only through but as the new mass communication. Within their inflation of information as an inflation of meaning, quite 'logically', only 'Dada' was left. Even its most critical offshoot, Berlin-Dada, used the newest technological devices of photo-montage for its satire: a satire whose 'blind spots' of critique, consequentially, remained the holy trinity of technology, the city, and the masses. Due to these blind spots, Berlin-Dada's satire turned into industrialist propaganda between Soviet Futurism and metropolitan Americanism – spellbound by the advert-machine New York. Of course, this 'dialectical' if not self-deconstructive approach to one's own political position could only be perfected in an age of post-dualist postmodernism. Meanwhile, it is not only well-known that 'Mohammed was a capitalist' but that 'Steve Jobs was a Buddhist', which may well be read as an ironic comment on Huelsenbeck's irony: “Dada is the American side of Buddhism”. Put in post-Dadaist, or surrealist terms, 'where Ego was, there Id shall be': the super-Id of libidinal capital. What is left today, then, may best be grasped with Metz and Seeßlen's term “capitalist surrealism”.


Towards a non-dystopian post-capitalism

To summarise: under postmodernity, capital emancipates from the bourgeoisie, meaning that its revolutionary productive forces emancipate from traditional-bourgeois conditions of production – like from the dualisms of work and leisure, factory and home, producer and consumer. In the course of this, global capital unmasks itself to the point of embracing counter-enlightenment openly – sublating its dialectics of enlightenment in a sur-realist synthesis of neo-capitalism. Manfredo Tafuri has described this process decades ago as a collapse of base and superstructure into each other. The following idealist rule of the 'signifiant' is synonymous to the material ideology of economic fatalism. Put differently, postmodernity's loss of reference, its loss of origin in the creator and of authorship in general, comes from capital's profound abolition of societal self-determination. Hence, the end of the autonomy of art can be seen as the model for the end of political autonomy more generally. The arts in the second half of the 20th century went from assemblaging objets trouvés by negating the autonomy of the artist to the artist becoming an updatable ready-made-assemblage herself – if not Artificial Intelligence tout court. Warhol's notorious dream “I want to be a machine” has thus realised in Deleuzian becoming: increasingly, living beings are reduced to animations, to cogs in a network consisting of commodities, images, algorithms, and their amalgamation in a greater whole of accumulation. As a metaphysical baseline, meanwhile, only capital is left as an “actant” ('l'agent = l'argent'). This is nowhere as well captured as in the material idealism of a delimited art world posing as anti-capitalist. Yet, if the left wants to intervene in this realist science-fiction of artistic reality, it needs to overcome its own postmodernism and dare to start history again, which is impossible without political autonomy. Instead of pushing further what is already falling with Nietzsche, the 'bourgeois' value of intersubjective Mündigkeit is to be reassessed with Marx. Without it, radical democracy remains an empty term. That capitalist nihilism does not believe in the messianic features of transcendence, rationality, or autonomy should be no argument for a repoliticised left. On the opposite, it should cause us to reradicalise these categories to substantially fuel hope for a non-dystopian post-capitalism.

This text is taken from Lukas Meisner's part of the 2020 publication Capitalist Nihilism and the Murder of Art (Arnhem), co-authored with Eef Veldkamp.