The fate of the artist at the end of  capitalism’s cosmology

This essay was commissioned as the inaugural input to Gamechanger, a Berlin-based platform to “explore contemporary mindsets and cultures of self-organization and work in the cultural field.” It was also translated into German and published by Arts of the Working Class:

The conditions that shape artistic collaboration and the survival of cultural workers today occur within a profound contradiction:

On the one hand the global system of capitalist exploitation is stronger and more pervasive than ever. It of course dominates the global economy, although today that economy seems to be reorganizing in increasingly belligerent regional imperialist blocs. But its logic of competition and accumulation also saturates nearly every social institution and shapes each individual’s imagination.

On the other hand, capitalism’s cosmology is collapsing. On the surface level, this collapse is indexed by the growing disenchantment, unease and cynicism with the ideological claims of capitalism’s post-1989 champions. No one today seriously believes that “rising tides” of economic growth will “lift all boats” and lead to general prosperity shared by all. Very few people imagine that those who work hard and play by the rules are destined or even likely to succeed. The myth that infinite economic growth is possible on a finite planet or that capitalism will create technological fixes to its ecological crises sound increasingly absurd or frantic. Something is happening here that goes beyond cynicism. It’s not simply that the ideological stories some individuals told to justify capitalism are no longer convincing. The broader cosmology, the framework it provided for making sense of the world and our places in it,is falling apart.

The global system of capitalist exploitation is stronger and more pervasive than ever… [but] capitalism’s cosmology is collapsing.

Artists and culture workers had a role or a spectrum of roles under the cosmology of capitalism. Today their meaning is in flux as that cosmology crumbles. But they also afford one of the few legitimate venues through which we are permitted to think cosmologically from within our cosmology.

As a result, one of the things that defines the condition and challenge for artists and cultural workers today is to help envision and put into practice what might yet come after capitalism catches up to its cosmology and collapses inward on itself. While some artists and culture workers are turning to face this problem directly, my argument here is that all are, in some way or another, contending with it indirectly or unconsciously, and this contention appears in the ways they are organizing, collaborating and collectivizing.

This can be exciting, but to what end?

The end of a cosmology

In using the term cosmology I have in mind goes beyond the particular stories and myths we tell ourselves about the system under which we live. I mean the overarching notion of a totality, the sense of the kosmos, within which those myths and narratives come to make sense. A cosmology is a shared sense of context that offers a map of a totality of which we are each a part and allows us to predict the plausible outcome of our actions within it. It is not a myth but a kind of meta mythscape, not a single ideology but the ideological gestalt within which particular ideologies come to make sense.

In the cosmology of capitalism, we have learned to see the world as the domain of individuated economic actors, interacting like atomic particles or objects in motion in finite space. This is not a cosmology of complex reciprocity and care but of force and coercion. This is a Newtonian worldview that Bichler and Nitzan identify as having emerged alongside the secularization of “Western” society, with its upending of a medieval cosmology and the replacement of an all-powerful God with the figure of the all-powerful individual. This cosmology, they argue, arose to offer a flattering reflection of and a justification for the rule of the bourgeois, competitive, patriarchal capitalist individual. He not only placed himself at the centre of the human story but also the centre of the proverbial cosmos, the template for not only all human behaviour but through which the laws of the universe might be imagined.

It’s not simply that the recent development in quantum physics have rendered this narcissistic cosmology uncertain. As Sylvia Wynter argues, the planetary struggles against colonialism and racism that crescendoed in the 1950s and 60s and continue to reverberate around the world have also called into question the claims to universality of what is, in fact, only one particular “genre” of being human. That hegemonic genre of homo oeconomicus, the hyper-rational, competitive subject, is, in fact, the particular domineering ideal crafted within and to help reproduce five centuries of imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism. It is organized around a cosmogony, an origin story, that skews Darwin’s theories of evolution to insist that this global capitalist order of inequality, oppression, exploitation and necropolitics is natural, normal, and necessary, that it had to be this way, that the past inevitably or providentially led to the present, and that all other peoples, all other worlds, all other cosmologies, are nothing but unreflexive imitations of its truth.

The artist and the cult

The global capitalist empire is declining, though that decline may take decades or centuries. It might take the world’s ecosystems down along with it. Or it may be replaced by something even worse. As the sun slowly set on the Roman empire (a process which took centuries) cults and “mystery societies” began to flourish like weeds in the ruins of the Empire’s cosmology. These rites, which not only replaced old gods with new ones but experimented with new forms of organization, new hierarchies of value, new rhythms of worship, were mostly practiced by those who had customarily or legally been excluded from access to power or to social mobility within the Empire.

At the time of the decline of Rome, of course, artists-as-such did not exist. Sculptors, poets and others we would, today, associate with the term were important members of society, but the notion of the individual creative genius whose role it is to produce “new” symbolic objects for consumption was alien. It was only with the rise of capitalism that the figure of the artist appeared as a glamorized ideal of homo oeconomicus, a daring risk-taker, a competitive individualist, making order out of chaos.

The collective now emerges as a key protagonist in the worlds of art and culture [as] spaces of cosmological experimentation.

Yet with the slow implosion of the capitalist cosmology, the halo projected onto the figure of the unique artistic genius is dimming. While that aura of the genius remains the thing that adds value to art commodities and attracts most consumers to art, artists and culture workers themselves are increasingly skeptical. In part, this has to do with the emergence of new generations of art workers raised on feminist, queer, anti-capitalist, anti-racist, and anti-colonial critiques of this aura. In part it has to do with survival: in an arts and cultural market where the vast majority of workers are destined to remain obscure and precarious “dark matter” so that a few stars may shine, it makes sense to, in various ways, abandon the quest for star status and band together into new cooperative configurations. Whatever the case, the collective now emerges as a key protagonist in the worlds of art and culture.

My suggestion here is that we can and should fruitfully imagine the emerging collective configurations of artists and culture workers as not only spaces their protagonists create to pool resources, redistribute opportunities, and collaborate in new ways. They are, I think, even when they do not intend it, spaces of cosmological experimentation. They are, often in spite of themselves, spaces of alternate worldmaking.

documenta 15 and the revenge of the ancien régime

The rise of the collective has been profoundly punctuated on the world stage by documenta 15, thanks to its visionary artistic director, the Indonesian collective Ruangrupa. At their invitations, up to 1,500 artists, the majority coming from racialized or global-South positions, descended on Kassel in various amorphous configurations. Some were part of long-standing, decades-old collectives. Other collectives were of more recent vintage, but all were microcosmic experiments in what it might mean to eschew the triumphal heroism of the individual artist and embrace some form of cooperation and codependency. Ruangrupa’s concept of the Lumbung, or communal rice shed, offered a Global South reply to Western notions of the commons, which Mao Mollona shows has animated radical artmaking with a notion of a shared territory of care and support.

This decidedly anti-capitalist and anti-colonial approach trespassed in what had, since 1955, been one of the world’s foremost temples to the figure of the artistic genius, clashing with the entrenched cultural administration and documenta staff and grievously upsetting the expectations of the Germany’s political elite, the art world, and visitors to the 100 day festival. For their heresies, Ruangrupa could never be forgiven. The scandals that are, at the time of writing, plaguing the festival have the sulfurous smell of revenge.

The stage was set even before the festival began by a series of bad-faith rumours and absurd accusations targeting Palestinain artists. When, upon the opening of the festival, two minor images (out of thousands) appeared on a mural that could be construed, in the German context, as anti-Semitic, the gates of hell opened. The images and associated artwork were promptly and rightly removed. Regardless of intent, the images should not have appeared in Germany. The apology from the artists and the curators should be studied as potent examples of how to express contrition for a symbolic harm while also opening a fruitful space for critical conversation. But that was not to be enough and the scandal spiraled out of control.

An honest forensic investigation of how Germany’s political parties and media, as well as other cynical actors, fomented and exploited the scandal is urgently needed, but will never happen. It would have to include a careful unpacking of difficult truths. Among them, the ways that Germany’s unique and horrifying history of anti-Semitism (of which my family were victims) and the associated public memory are so fraught that they preclude precisely the kind of mature conversation about the race and culture that they demand. It might include a reckoning with Germany’s deplorable and racist attacks on free speech regarding Palestinian human rights and its cryptoauthoritarian blacklisting of those who speak out on the matter. It might dwell with the persistence of a largely unquestioned and unacknowledged white supremacy throughout German society that, for example, sees nothing wrong when the exclusively white political elites arrived in Kassel to scold the mostly non-white and global-South artists and curators of documenta 15 about racism, as if the former had anything to say on the matter and as if the latter were misbehaved children who threw a party while the adults were away at the opera. It might include noting the inconsistencies between the national elite’s phobia of any imagery reminiscent of anti-Semitism at the same time as it tolerates, defends, and even celebrates dehumanizing representations of Islam and of Black people in artistic and popular culture as democratic virtue.

The attack on documenta 15 has been accelerated and fueled by a reactionary, rear-guard loathing for Ruangrupa and friends’ iconoclastic upsetting of the figure of the artist as such.

Anti-semitism is real and dangerous, as the present author, who is among its targets, knows all too well. But the attack on documenta 15 had little to do with it. At least in part, that attack has been accelerated and fueled by a reactionary, rear-guard loathing for Ruangrupa and friends’ iconoclastic upsetting of the figure of the artist as such. They could not be forgiven for their insistence that this documenta, in the spirit of honouring “the contemporary,” would prioritize creating lasting connections between racialized, radical, and global-south artists and collectives, rather than pleasing the European gaze. Whether the curators and their comrades succeeded in their goal is another matter; only time will tell. (As of writing there are many rumours, controversies, hard feelings, and ambiguities about the process, the compensation system, the hosting, and more). But it was the goal itself that enraged the high priests of the ancien régime, who insist they are the defenders of civilization but whose murderous cosmology is dying.

In fact, the slanderous, almost maniacal vociferousness with which art’s ancien régime and their allies attacked documenta 15 has much in common with the reactionary zeal with which, at various points, the Roman empire sought to stave off internal implosion by persecuting those dissidents from its cosmology. In this sense, the attacks on documenta 15, although they seek to monopolize a rhetoric of anti-racism and pluralism, have much in common with the far-right and postfascist wave that is threatens to engulf the world. These reactionary forces also mobilize around the tarnished icons and disenchanted fetishes of the old cosmology: patriarchal gender regimes, ethnonationalism, competitive individualism. The far-right find themselves in a bad romance with their competitors for dominance within the political machinations of capitalism: those more liberal and “centrist” factions of the elite. In turn, these “centrists” (who are, in fact, reactionary from any reasonable standard), look longingly to the discourses of those long marginalized from it to revivify their fortunes, parroting social justice rhetoric to sustain their increasingly implausible positions. The revanchist right and the revanchist centre, who insist they are enemies, in fact find common cause in episodes like the scandal of documenta 15..

Collective visions at the end of the worlds

As David Graeber noted, reflecting on the movements that gave inspiration to and formed in the wake of the Occupy uprisings and the movements of the Squares, the particular political demands of many of today’s radical protagonists are less significant than the very fact that they gather: their politics are the way they experiment with and instantiate new forms of social organization and cooperation.

This is also true of the rise of the collective as the format of “political” art in our moment. They are, as Stevphen Shukaitis notes, imaginative ventures in reorganizing social life that, even if they burn out quickly and without measurable immediate impact, may, with a kind of historical spooky action at a distance, make their vibrations felt years or decades in the future through processes we as yet barely understand. As my metaphors here indicate, I also see these collectives as venues for the experimentation with parallel cosmologies.

True, some collectives merely represent mercenary and expedient mechanisms by which artists and cultural workers can pool resources, diversify risk, and otherwise create a proxy corporation or family. But more often than not they are laboratories for pluralizing the ways we might re-become human, which is to say cooperate and reflect our cooperation back to ourselves so that we can change, as Wynter teaches. The ancien régime of the old, decaying capitalist cosmology insists that there is only one real way to be human, that all cooperation is disguised competition, that all kinship is patriarchal, and that all people want to become a white man. The urge towards collectivity that so animates artists and culture workers today defies this cosmology and invents new ones. But with what means and towards what ends?

From January to July of 2022 I took up a live-in residency at a yet-unnamed and largely unfinished program near Berlin’s Treptower Park, located in an old bathtub factory converted into apartments and workshops known as Moos (after the street on which it is found: Moosdorfstr.) I joined the experiment, and offered to bring my experience as a community organizer and theorist of the commons. I wished to place myself in a context that I did not understand, a kind of gonzo sociological fieldwork. I wanted to understand something of the way people younger than myself (born in 1981) found hope in the world in the wake of the pandemic. I was at once fascinated and repelled by the way the space brought under one roof experimental artists, alternative health practitioners, crypto-currency evangelists, social activists, new age spiritualists, privileged nomads, and more. How did these fit together? For me, the space was characterized by an ideological dissonance, but I was curious about how it might reveal something about the cosmological shifts occurring at a broader level and about the way creative people are imagining and practicing collectivity in this moment.

Setting aside the questions of vision and organization that plagued the residency program from the beginning, what I learned is that, for an emerging generation, the rapid decomposition and recomposition of what we might have once called “subcultures” is not only normal but celebrated. Perhaps this has something to do with the ease with which a generation raised on social media can move between cultural spaces and idioms. Perhaps it has something to do with the way capitalism itself is constantly combusting and resynthesizing social life. But what struck me quite profoundly is the fluidity with which collectivities form and dissolve, and how in each instance working and living together generates and organizes itself around new, synthetic cosmologies. It seemed plausible to many in that space to imagine that DeFi and Web3 might be used to elevate humanity to higher levels of consciousness, that experimental music could heal intergenerational trauma, that psychoactive substances could help us develop a revolutionary new relation to the more-than-human world, that polyamory could advance climate justice. Many younger participants felt both the presence and the abandonment of their ancestors. They were both post-hopeful and post-cynical. Yes, to some extent such optimistic belief reflected a kind of youthful exuberance in a “post”-pandemic moment. But my curiosity turns towards the broader paradigm of which such (to my mind overly exuberant) thinking is a symptom. One could, of course, successfully critique any one of these positions, but that was and is not my goal. I am curious about the paradigm within which they take root, grow and cross-pollinate.

As the capitalist cosmology crumbles, new cults and mysteries proliferate with amorphous borders and uncertain durations.

As the capitalist cosmology crumbles, new cults and mysteries proliferate with amorphous borders and uncertain durations. As we each live through the profound dissonance between capitalism’s persistent and deepening power and the collapse of its structures of belief, the collapse, even, of the way it explains how the world and the cosmos work, we, all of us, at any age, reach for the fragments and, in more or less coherent ways, try and reassemble a sense of the totality in which we live and our place in it. It’s not only that our beliefs about the economy and our places in it are shifting; so too is our fundamental sense of how the world works. Spirituality merges with science, the personal and the political collapse in on one another. Technology and society become indistinct. The lines blur between physics and emotions.

For a person of my age, who remembers a moment when the capitalist cosmology felt more or less coherent, this task is a melancholic, confusing, and often infuriating one. For many younger comrades, this kind of neverending pastiche, the constant combination and recombination of cosmological fragments into a bricolage, is the only normal they’ve ever known.

The (re)assembly of cosmologies is not, for any of us, a purely or even primarily conscious cognitive exercise: it is fundamentally social, a shared work that emerges from interactions and relationships. As a result, it should not surprise us that “the collective” emerges as the paradigmatic format of social organization in this moment. The collective is not so much a particular strucure: after all, they can be small or large, open or closed, democratic or authoritarian. The collective names an aspiration to come together to remake the world.

A prediction and a question

In the future which is also already here, all people will be artists and all artists will be in collectives (maybe multiple contradictory collectives). These collectives will be cult-like spaces, laboratories for new and resurgent cosmologies crafted not only through discourse but, rather, through the experimental relationship between people.

As the empire slowly crumbles, a million quasi-systems of sense-making and worldmaking will proliferate precisely in the spaces that capitalism prepared and cultivated for “art” or “culture.” This is not only because this is one of the last venues to obtain funding to do weird stuff. It’s also because those spaces are strangely amenable to cosmological heresy and experimentation. In the future which is also already here, all art will be ritual, and all cultural spaces will be altars, often in spite of themselves. To whom will the sacrifices be made?

For some, this proliferation of cults will be joyful, affirming and generative, especially those whose racial, gendered, or sexual positionality have seen them and their ancestors subordinated to homo oeconomicus. For others, this future will feel profoundly confusing, alienating, and vertiginous. Many will flee into the certainties of the old cosmology and join the revanchist rump of the ancien régime. New cultish fascisms are already rising.

As the empire slowly crumbles, a million quasi-systems of sense-making and worldmaking will proliferate precisely in the spaces that capitalism prepared and cultivated for “art” or “culture.”

But to imagine that all such formations will be reactionary, regressive, or misguided would be wrong. The collective is emerging as the pivotal idiom of radical culture-making because it provides laboratories for new, post-capitalist imaginaries and forms of relation.

The question underneath it all is the terrifying one: is there any way such collectives can make common cause to bring down the material power structures and entrenched elites of the capitalist empire before they destroy the world on which everyone depends? We should never have imagined that it was art’s job to change the world. But is it the job of the collective? And is making a new world from the fragments of the old good enough?

As its cosmology collapses, capitalism appears to offer more and more space and time for collective freedom and less and less scope for collective transformative power. How can this freedom become powerful?