Romances, maudlin dramas, shallow homilies, which trifle with so-called (though falsely so) noble sentiments, but in fact make the heart enervated, insensitive to the stern precepts of duty, and incapable of respect for the worth of humanity in our own person and the rights of human beings (which is something quite other than their happiness), and in general incapable of all firm principles . . .—these have nothing to do with what may be reckoned to belong to beauty.
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment
The majority of people spoil their lives by an unhealthy and exaggerated altruism . . . . But alone, without any reference to his neighbors, without any interference, the artist can fashion a beautiful thing.
Oscar Wilde, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”
Walter Benn Michaels, The Beauty of a Social Problem: Photography, Autonomy, Economy (University of Chicago Press, 2016)
It is hard to look at “Guatemela, 1978” without being struck by the beauty of Sebastião Salgado’s photograph. A small marvel of composition—of neatly balanced, nearly symmetrical planes and slashing, diagonal lines—the image also tells a moving story. On the left side of the picture, a young girl heads off to market, already sampling her wares, her face beaming out at the viewer with delight. On the right, an older woman (her mother?), ignores the photographer and looks down at the child, her face lined with sorrow. The left side of the frame is an image of freedom and pleasure, its dynamism emphasized by the slanting lines and depth of field that convey a sense of open space. The right side is all about confinement and hard experience. Indeed, the older woman’s face, floating in black shadow and cropped tight in a window frame whose borders are emphasized by the vertical lines of the door in which it is set, could nearly be taken for a death mask. Precisely because “Guatemala, 1978” is a photograph, moreover, we cannot see it without realizing that the image preserves a fleeting moment. The beautiful child, already working to support her family, will have lost her look of innocent pleasure many years ago. If she is still alive—if she has somehow survived not merely poverty but the ravages of civil war and the waves of political violence and crime exported by U.S. policy to Central America–her face in all likelihood will long since have come to resemble the mournful visage of the woman in the window.
Would Walter Benn Michaels admire “Guatemala, 1978”? I can’t say. But I thought of the image often as I read The Beauty of a Social Problem. For Salgado’s photograph sits square atop a set of problems worried over in depth by Michaels’s book. A sometime photojournalist and documentarian who is also a renowned art photographer, Salgado is often celebrated as a chronicler of the labor of the global South and as a poet of environmental consciousness. If less frequently, he is also criticized as a romanticizer of poverty and as a fetishist of the indigenous and premodern who downplays the political and economic structures that shape the world he depicts. His work thus straddles problems with which photographers have grappled since the emergence of the technology. Is photography a form of high art or low journalism? Is the photograph a product of the artist’s hand or the mere record of happenstance? In its perennial fascination with poverty and suffering, does photography sentimentalize injustice and comfort its viewers, or does it reveal the truth and challenge the conscience?
In The Beauty of a Social Problem, an essay in aesthetic theory prompted by the central problems of art photography, Walter Benn Michaels considers such questions with verve and profound intelligence, and he comes to forceful—indeed, polemical—answers. Here, as in his four previous books, Michaels shows himself to be both a superb critic and a brilliant theoretician. Taking up classic issues of photography and of art in general, Michaels returns to philosophical tangles that he has been pursuing in relation to literature for decades. Some of these difficulties are so familiar–in Michaels’s work and in the history of aesthetic theory more broadly–that they seem nearly chestnuts. Yet, at every turn, The Beauty of a Social Problem frames these problems in provocative and often stunningly innovative ways. I am quite certain that I would not fully appreciate the depths of Salgado’s work, or that of many other contemporary photographers, without Michaels’s example.
Which is not to say that The Beauty of a Social Problem is a remotely convincing book. Michaels stakes out stark positions on the nature of modern art in this work, and he joins those contentions to forceful claims about art’s relation to the commercial market, both in general and more urgently in relation to the current moment of deepening inequality. He makes the case, too, with dash and elegance—so much so that it would be almost possible to overlook the fact that the claims he makes are needlessly overdrawn. In truth, Michaels’s argument is illuminating almost precisely to the degree that, on consideration, it turns out to be finally implausible.
None of this can be fully appreciated, though, without realizing that The Beauty of a Social Problem amounts to a new salvo in Michaels’s long-running war with the various schools of anti-formalist art and theory, and with the various styles of cultural politics, that he joins together under the labor “postmodernism” (15). At least since Against Theory, the controversial critique of the philosophy of literary interpretation that he published with Steven Knapp in 1982, Michaels has been arguing against poststructuralist theories of language and doing battle with an array of what he plausibly contends are comparable movements in arts and criticism. In the philosophy of Jacques Derrida and Judith Butler, the criticism of Roland Barthes and Paul DeMan, the art history of Rosalind Krauss and Douglas Crimp, Michaels sees a set of shared and enduring preoccupations and a host of persistent theoretical errors. Despite their other differences, all these thinkers are oriented on his account by their critique of intentional meaning, and all, therefore, are drawn to the belief that words should be understood not as vehicles of a speaker’s meaning but rather as material objects whose significance can be finally determined only by their impact on their audience. Such theories, Michaels explains, “turn signs into sounds or marks or, better still, . . . ‘blank’ space” (78).
Unsatisfactory though that may be, poststructuralist theory for Michaels is merely the most philosophically articulate expression of an attitude that he sees everywhere in American culture of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries—not least in the visual arts. The watershed, he explains, came in minimalist sculpture and the challenge that minimalism and then subsequent avant-garde movements mounted to the aims of high modernism. Adopting the account of twentieth-century art famously proposed by Michael Fried, Michaels argues that minimalism was not merely a new phase in the history of fine art. It was rather a willful rejection of everything that “modernism,” as it was properly defined, had long stood for. From Manet through the abstract expressionists, modernist artists had striven to fashion what Fried describes as “self-sufficient” and “autonomous” creations–works whose beauty and significance would be theoretically independent of the perspective of any of their observers. But come the 1960s, minimalist sculptors like Donald Judd began to dismiss that goal. The aim now was only to make objects that would matter in the different ways they could be, as Judd said, “interesting” to their diverse witnesses. For Michaels, in short, minimalism and poststructuralism look like two expressions of a shared agenda. Poststructuralist thinkers displaced the word as vehicle of intentional meaning with the letter as material object. Minimalist sculptors replaced the work of art as autonomous structure with the art object as “literal” thing. In both cases, Michaels claims, the upshot was a persistent fascination with the possibility that meaning and value could appear not intentional or durable but instead the randomly generated outcome of an endless diversity of individual encounters. Under the postmodern dispensation, “there could be no sense given to any claim as to the ‘rightness’ of any particular understanding,” Michael Fried remarks of the complaint he shares with Michaels, “for each subject’s ‘experience’ was unique and in a sense incommensurable with every other subject’s.”
Of course, much has happened in literary criticism and in the arts since the mid-1960s. But in Michaels’s view, poststructuralist theory and postmodern art established a beachhead in American institutions around the Summer of Love, and they have never really let go. The philosophy of anti-modernism—“the critique of perfection, of unity and totality”—remains the lingua franca of art schools and of the academic humanities (7). The vision persists, Michaels contends, not just out of habit but because it comports perfectly with the prevailing economic ideology of our time. If postmodern art and poststructuralist theory first burst on the American scene in the mid-sixties, they rose to preeminence, Michaels notes, over the subsequent decades, doing so as the neoliberal movement to unleash the power of capital simultaneously conquered political and economic institutions. That was no coincidence. For postmodernism and neoliberalism were, Michaels claims, natural allies. If the most fundamentally shared premise of postmodern critique has indeed been the conviction that meaning and value must be indeterminate–generated only by the experience of an audience–then postmodernism, as Michaels explains, works beautifully with the neoliberal theology of markets. Everything is decided by consumer choice. What’s more, the same reasoning can be extended, Michaels still more polemically asserts, to the late twentieth century rise of the new social movements and to their success in mobilizing and expanding the language of civil rights. Feminism, antiracism, the challenge to heteronormativity—all, like poststructuralist theory and postmodern art, appear to Michaels tainted by complicity with neoliberal capitalism. For, on his account, all are built on the fantasy of a world of free and fair exchange, and all are thus preoccupied with tolerance and personal liberty while remaining, for that very reason, blind to the deepening structures of economic inequality that characterize our world. Postmodernism and diversity, on his account, are the opiate of the neoliberal bourgeoisie.
Yet, however bleak that picture looks, The Beauty of a Social Problem takes heart in what Michaels casts as a nascent challenge to neoliberalism’s reign. It’s not the success of Bernie Sanders or the growth of the DSA by which Michaels is especially excited in this work, however. Rather, he sees a hopeful challenge to the prevailing neoliberal regime in the rise of new styles of avant-garde art. The promise is most evident for him in a recent cohort of conceptual photographers (Viktoria Binschtok, Phil Chang, Liz Deschennes, Arthur Ou, Brian Ulrich), and a handful of likeminded novelists and poets (Jonathan Littel, Tom McCarthy, Maggie Nelson). All fascinate him for the way their artistic ambitions appear to mirror his own theoretical concerns. For just as Michaels honed his critical agenda against the philosophical errors of poststructuralist theory, these photographers and writers have come to their own visions, he argues, in their struggle to work through the problematic legacy of postmodernism.
They are artists, Michaels points out, who were born in the decade after 1965. Having come of age in the late twentieth century, they were inevitably reared in the language of postmodern critique–trained to value the effort “to undo the separation of the work from the world” (10). What’s more, for the photographers among them, their medium must have seemed especially suited to that effort. For as Michaels explains, photography by its very nature may be the technological means least suited to the modernist dream of a self-sufficient art. Because photography does not merely depict (as drawing or painting do) but records, it can be easily conceived not as a representation but as an “index” of reality—a sign, as Michaels says quoting C. S. Peirce, that appears “physically connected with its object” (9). For the same reasons, photography is the means of visual representation to which a belief in the artist’s skill and agency is least necessary. Anyone can take a photograph, and, moreover, almost any photograph must include visual information that is not a product of the artist’s choice but a consequence of chance. Seen from this vantage, photography is “a technology, not an art,” Michaels claims (14). It tells us to take note, not of what the artist creates, but of what the camera registers. By extension, Michaels suggests, it prompts us to think of ourselves not as connoisseurs of beauty but as witnesses of experience.
And yet, Michaels contends, when we examine the conceptual photographers he admires, we can’t help but observe that these artists ultimately came to do something quite different from what their teachers recommended or their technology encouraged. When, for example, we see the work of Arthur Ou—who alters his negatives with bleach so that they produce prints marked by black blotches that visually rhyme with the sculptural objects the film records–we see photographs that in their very disfigurement assert the significance of their medium and that therefore demand to be taken not merely as indexes of reality but as artful representations. A similar discovery occurs in the literary texts that Michaels casts as comparable. In Jane: A Murder, for example, the poet Maggie Nelson responds to the historical event of her aunt’s violent death and narrates her effort to create a work of art in response. As Michaels observes, Nelson refers knowingly to the doubtful tradition of aestheticizing dead women. But, in her effort to create a book that responds to the destruction of her aunt’s life, she nevertheless dramatizes her struggle to create a poetic form that renders pain endurable and finally beautiful. In both cases, Michaels claims, we see artists who, like himself, probe the problems raised by postmodernism and yet then effectively turn against it. “Their aesthetic ambitions engage and push beyond the critique of autonomy and intentionality,” Michaels says of Nelson and Ou and the artists he views as their peers (xii, emphasis in original). They were trained to be postmodernists. They reinvented modernism.
In this respect, Michaels suggests, these artists also strike a blow against global capitalism. Neo-modernist art is Michaels’s red pill, the antidote to the delusions of neoliberalism. In its claim to formal autonomy, he contends, the genuine work of art refuses to be judged by the lowest common denominator of the market. It therefore effectively declares its independence from the networks of economic exchange and–by extension, Michaels assumes–of economic exploitation that govern our world. In its ostensible indifference to the view of its spectators, moreover, modernist art in Michaels’s view delivers a much-needed shock to what he casts as the shallow diversity politics of postmodern culture. Modernism, in theory, doesn’t care how we experience or what we desire. It thus tells us not to be concerned with our trivial personal feelings about bias or unfairness and prompts us instead (again, Michaels assumes) to take notice of the systematic injustice of our time. “It’s the very effort to produce something utterly self-contained,” he claims, “that enables us to see in art not just a reflection of our current form of neoliberal capitalism” but the possibility of a better way of life. High art he asserts, following Nicholas Brown, is “‘neoliberalism’s other’” (41).
How seriously should we take this argument? The answer will depend not only on whether we share Michaels’s formalist taste in art, but whether we are convinced by his equally formalist reading of the terrain of contemporary life. Despite his deserved reputation as a founder of new historicism, in fact Michaels has long been distinguished by the high formalism of his approach to cultural history. His historicism, in other words, was never the sort that emphasized the thick description of contexts and interests or the biographical history of careers and institutions. Rather, Michaels’s great strength as a critic has always been his remarkable ability to discern in the details of literary texts the outline of conceptual problems—typically problems coincident with controversies in political and legal discourse–and to trace out the way writers developed imaginative responses to those problems and pursued their implications.
For sheer lucidity, that approach has often made for exhilarating reading. Those who remember the publication of Michaels’s classic studies The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism or Our America: Nativism, Modernism, Pluralism are likely to recall the jaw-dropping brio with which they cut through thickets of scholarly habit and, seemingly in a gesture or two, recast the landscape of cultural history. But powerful though it can be, critical formalism runs the risk that all abstraction does; it is easy to take the map for the territory.
The danger can be seen in what may be Michaels’s most characteristic forensic technique. For perhaps the most consistent feature of his work over the years has been his reliance on a subtly practiced argument by ideal type. Time and again, Michaels aligns literary artists with strongly defined theoretical positions–stances in which they are characteristically said to be “invested” and to whose logical implications it is claimed they are “committed.” Typically, Michaels illuminates the stakes of those theoretical positions by casting them in a kind of theater of ideas. In The Gold Standard, for example, he describes William Dean Howells as an agrarian anti-capitalist and renders Howells’s conservative realism as antitype to Theodore Dreiser’s grand romance of consumer desire. Our America similarly views Edith Wharton as the voice of genteel snobbery and makes her fascination with genealogy seem an alternative to the racialist antisemitism of Willa Cather and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Michaels’s subsequent book The Shape of the Signifier practices a similar technique, describing Brett Easton Ellis’s slasher narrative American Psycho as a covert novel of manners and explaining that Ellis’s preoccupation with status makes his work a polar opposite to the narrative of cultural inheritance at the core of Art Spiegelman’s Maus.
The Beauty of a Social Problem, too, has its share of such binary opposites—not least among them, of course, the fundamental contrast Michaels draws between the modernist and postmodernist. As in his previous work, too, Michaels usually manages to make these unlikely comparisons seem both counterintuitive and entirely convincing. This most recent book includes, for example, a bravura set piece comparing the documentary photography of Walker Evans and August Sander and casting their rival depictions of social inequality as exemplars of the sensibilities Michaels observes in modernism and postmodernism, respectively. Sander, Michaels explains in a compelling analysis, offers a nearly feudal vision of what he himself called “the social order”; his oft-remarked “sympathy” with the subjects of his camera serves to express his sense of a communal hierarchy bound by mutual recognition (133). The chilly aesthetic formalism of Evans’s photographs, by contrast, reveals the fundamental antagonism of class.
This is the kind of rich and precise analysis that makes the work of someone like Salgado leap out with new clarity. Looking at a photograph like “Guatemala, 1978” after reading The Beauty of a Social Problem, one immediately recognizes how Salgado’s work can appear to teeter awkwardly between the rival possibilities Michaels sees running all through the history of photography—the left half of the photograph seeming to call out for the kind of recognition and sympathy (and possibly the fantasy of market freedom) that Michaels disdains, the right perhaps providing a formal design that undercuts that sentimental connection and reminds one of the structural constraints that can make sentiment seem dubious.
But if Michaels’s stark comparisons can be heuristically illuminating, they can also be overstated. A revealing example appears in the brief references The Beauty of a Social Problem makes to Immanuel Kant. One might imagine that Michaels would find in Kant’s aesthetic theory—like his own, formalist and ethically stern—an appropriate precursor. Instead, Michaels casts Kant as the initiator of a fatefully mistaken attitude toward art. Here again following Fried, Michaels presumes that Kant’s foundational theory of aesthetic judgment tells us that we should appreciate art as we do natural beauty and, by extension, that we should disregard the artist’s intention or even seek to deny it. In its “appeal to nature,” Michaels tells us, Kant’s aesthetic theory exemplifies a “refusal of intentionality.” It calls for “an art like nature”—meaning something that appears not to be the product of a human hand (56). Invoking Diderot to fill the inevitable contrary role, Michaels abstracts still further and identifies what he calls “the Kantian side” of a two-century long debate (69). Kant’s half of the scrum, he claims, points toward an ultimate goal that will be finally realized in the minimalist dream of reducing art to “literal” objects (69). Like August Sander, in short, the premier philosopher of the Enlightenment becomes for Michaels a postmodernist avant la lettre.
The only problem with this unusual view is that it disregards what Kant himself said. It ignores the ways in which Kant’s seminal theory—at least on a naïve reading–anticipates a good deal of what Michaels himself most strenuously advocates. Art is “intrinsically purposive,” Kant tells us, sounding quite like Michaels himself (135). It “has always got a definite intention of producing something” (136). Without an “act of will,” art would not exist at all (132). Although natural scenes and works of human ingenuity may both strike us as beautiful, then, for Kant much as for Michaels, it is the artist’s purpose that distinguishes the “work” of art from the mere “effect” of natural processes (132). Indeed, Michaels’s unacknowledged affinity with Kant runs still deeper. Like Michaels, who stresses modernism’s friction with the commercial market, Kant distinguishes fine art from mere “handicraft” by claiming that the former is “free” while the latter is “remunerative” and thus a matter of “business” (133). Long before the concept had explicitly entered aesthetic theory, in other words, Kant had already anticipated the belief, not only that the work of fine art must be distinguished from nature, but that it must likewise disavow the status of commodity.
In fact, though Michaels doesn’t note the affinity himself, his vision of art has much in common with a whole line of formalist theory that descends from Kant’s foundational effort to define the essential features of aesthetic experience. At the core of that account lay the presumption that the contemplation of beauty simultaneously hinges on and enables the subjective experience of disinterest, autonomy, and universality. For Kant, in short, aesthetic experience produces a type of pleasure in the intimation of human freedom. In the sublime, as well, it tutors to a kind of moral intuition—an awareness, described elsewhere only as a principle of reason, that the world of necessity can be transcended by a universal realm of justice. Although with changes in emphasis and terminology, a similar vision appears central to Michaels’s aesthetic theory as well. Though he talks more about art than Kant did, and although he makes no distinction between the sublime and the beautiful, for Michaels, much as for Kant, aesthetic experience appears valuable especially because it prompts the awareness that we can free ourselves from interest and determination and in so doing achieve a perception of freedom and justice that transcends the injustice of the empirical world. “It’s the production of art’s difference from the world,” Michaels tells us in this spirit, “that counts as the work it does in the world” (172).
Just as importantly—if not more so–Michaels implicitly shares antagonists with Kant as well. Precisely because he conceived of aesthetic experience as a kind of freedom from desire and determination, Kant cultivated an allergic response to the alternative attitudes that he sensed would traduce that freedom. If aesthetic judgment hinged on disinterest, autonomy, and universality, by the same token pleasures that spoke of mixed motives or personal satisfactions would need to be cast aside. “The pure judgment of taste” would have to be “independent of charm and emotion” and, by extension, therefore “a question merely of the form” (54). So, too, with the fine art that Kant cast as the corollary of genuine aesthetic experience. In “advancing the culture of the mental powers,” art would have to reject the lower pleasures of “bodily sensation” and the satisfactions of mere sentimentality (135). From Kant onwards, in short, the idea of fine art would always be dogged by the twin enemies of pornography and kitsch. Kitsch “lurks in art,” the latter-day Kantian Theodor Adorno complained, “awaiting ever recurring opportunities to spring forth” with its most characteristic weapon, “the prevarication of feelings.” As Adorno knew, the roots of that concern reached back to Kant. For Kant “was the first to achieve the insight, never since forgotten, that aesthetic comportment is free from desire; he snatched art away from that avaricious philistinism that always wants to touch it and taste it.”
Refusing the pleasures of the flesh, battling the temptations of charm and sentiment in favor of the rigor of form—that calling would remain a constant mission of the theories of art that descended from Kant’s philosophy of aesthetics. So too would the presumption that such an ascetic commitment should somehow enable access to a higher truth and a better world. “The way to perfection is through a series of disgusts,” Walter Pater, himself a reader of Kant and Hegel at Oxford, famously wrote in The Renaissance. His student Oscar Wilde intensified the vision and, as Kant had done, made the devotion to the demands of aesthetic refinement appear inseparable from a rejection of the vulgar marketplace. “The moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist, and becomes a dull or an amusing craftsman.” For Wilde, devotion to high art entails not just a rejection of commercial exchange, however, but on the same grounds a renunciation of what Michaels refers to as “our affective relation” to the “social structure” of inequality. “It is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought,” Wilde notes, anticipating Michaels. But “the proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.” Fortunately for Wilde, much as for Michaels, the contemplation of beauty serves as a model of emancipation from worldly constraint—one that he views as the portent of the genuinely socialist society. The true lover of art, Wilde tells us, “is admitted to contemplate the work of art, and if the work be fine, to forget in its contemplation all the egotism that mars him.” Though with different terminology, Herbert Marcuse would later make a similar case. “I see the political potential of art in . . . the aesthetic form as such,” Marcuse explains. “In its autonomy art both protests . . . [existing social] relations, and at the same time transcends them.”
In short, running all through the formalist theories descended from Kant’s aesthetic philosophy has been the notion that, in its quest for perfection and its refusal of vulgarity, high art expresses opposition to a fallen world and the aspiration for a better one. The Beauty of a Social Problem resuscitates that idea. A taste for modernist art, Michaels tells us, should be “politically helpful” to the socialist cause (41). What he means by that claim is not that art will convey political arguments or inspire political action. Rather, like Wilde and Marcuse, Michaels suggests that the effort to create autonomous art (along with the appreciation of that effort) can allegorize the dream of a just society. It “functions . . . as an emblem of the relation between classes,” he tells us, and, in a telling phrase, “also of the escape from that relation, of the possibility of a world without class” (xii).
But, in what ways are emblems important? The Beauty of a Social Problem implies that they matter most in the fashion that allegories have often mattered, as expressions of faith. More specifically, as noted above, Michaels proposes two arguments for the political utility of high art. One is that, in the effort to create a perfect form indifferent to the experience of its audience, the modernist work of art rejects the authority of the market. Though he concedes that no artist can plausibly imagine any longer (as avant-gardists once may have done) that his work has nothing to do with buying and selling, Michaels nevertheless declares that the pursuit of artistic integrity amounts to a challenge to capitalism. “He can’t, as an artist, want his art not to be a commodity . . . . What the artist can want, however, is for his art not to be just a commodity” (102, emphasis in original). The second argument is that, in its rejection of sentiment, modernist art denies our inclination to understand social injustice in terms of personal feeling and points instead to the structural realities of class. “In imagining a form that refuses the politics of personal involvement,” modernist art works “make . . . objective conditions [of inequality] visible” (172).
But unless one already shares Michaels’s beliefs, neither of these claims seems particularly forceful. Is there really anything distinctive about an artist who wants her work to be more than just a commodity? This seems, in fact, like the most commonplace of attitudes toward cultural expression, ordinary not just in high art but throughout popular culture. Likewise, do I really need a formally sophisticated work of photography to understand the structural reality of economic inequality? The evidence is all around me and plain to see if I want to see it. If I do not, however beautiful it might otherwise be, a photograph with a black blotch on it will not show me inequality any more than a kitschy one will successfully hide it if I wish to see the truth. What Michaels is invoking here, in short, is less argument or analysis than a statement of faith. An emblem is valuable, in other words, because it is a badge of identity.
That would not seem objectionable were Michaels not so withering in his disdain for what he elsewhere describes as shallow identity politics. Dismissing the “ethical kitsch” of postmodern fiction, for example, Michaels refers snarkily to “the expression of our desire to bask in our own disapproval” (163). To this, one might respond that there is no absence of disapproval in The Beauty of a Social Problem and nothing to suggest that Michaels doesn’t find it enjoyable. Indeed, Michaels returns often to his distaste for anti-formalists like Jacques Rancière and Rosalind Krauss who imply that their challenge to modernist aesthetics contributes to an egalitarian politics. He likewise refers with disdain to political programs that seek to challenge racial, gender, and sexual inequality. All these, he suggests, are trivial efforts to alter our point-of-view on the world rather than to change what Michaels views as the more fundamental structures of injustice. “Increased commitment to antidiscrimination,” he charges, has been “compatible with increased economic inequality” (62). Indeed, it is entirely possible, he complains, to critique racial and sexual injustice (subjective problems on his account) without necessarily addressing what he views as objective conditions. “There is no connection between the commitment to equality embodied in antidiscrimination,” he declares, “and the commitment to equality embodied in redistribution” (26).
Here too though, Michaels makes claims that might be better regarded as statements of belief than as arguments about politics. After all, many things are compatible with increased income inequality. Not least among them is a taste for fine art. And while it is surely true and important that there is no logically necessary connection between a commitment to antidiscrimination and a commitment to economic equality, that fact by itself tells us very little. There is also no logical connection between an opposition to commodified art and an opposition to the exploitation of labor–apart, that is, from the way the former can be imagined to signal a dislike of markets per se. Rather than viewing modernist aesthetics as a politically useful challenge to capitalism, in fact, it might be more plausible to say that the aspiration to make non-commodified art raises the same challenge to the neoliberal economy that a gift or an act of charity does. Like the cultural politics Michaels so dislikes, it is potentially a non-market transaction, perhaps even a beautiful one. But it is politically meaningful to the extent it demonstrates one’s desire for a better world.
It is perhaps because The Beauty of a Social Problem is an expression of faith as much as a critical argument that the positions the book takes are so vehement. Michaels has been stating his claim that there is a trade-off between the politics of class and the politics of racial, gender, and sexual equality for more than a decade now, and one senses that he has grown weary of justifying his position, even as, in some respects, recent history has made the case for his views more plausible and more widely shared. He could hardly be blamed if he took umbrage at the fact that contemporary public opinion has become far more receptive to his views than it once was, or that newly prominent critics of economic inequality like Branko Milanovic and Thomas Piketty have, to some degree, echoed his point. Indeed, Michaels’s animus against pious invocations of tolerance is not hard to understand in light of Piketty’s vivid observation that the political landscape of industrialized societies appears to be increasingly monopolized by a struggle between the forces of “merchant capital” and the “Brahmin left.” Should there be any doubt, Michaels does not admire the Brahmins.
But the case Michaels advances is actually much starker than that made by economists like Piketty and Milanovic. They speak of tensions between varied priorities in the effort to make a more democratic society. Michaels, for his part, writes as if there is not merely a difference between what Nancy Fraser memorably called a politics of recognition and a politics of redistribution, but a sharp incompatibility. More dramatically still, he contends that the politics of recognition is not so much a mistake or an impediment but rather a functional element in the operation of neoliberal capitalism. Adopting the economic theory of Gary Becker, Michaels claims that the political struggle to make a less sexually and racially unjust society has not merely coexisted with but effectively contributed, in two ways, to a more economically unequal world. “Antidiscrimination” serves to make “labor markets” less biased by irrational prejudice and thus “more efficient,” and, by extension, “it helps to legitimate the greater inequality it produces” (62). Presumably Michaels has his tongue in his cheek when he suggests that the point can be made in a “less provocative” way by saying simply that “American capitalism . . . needs antiracism to” make “class exploitation possible” (195, n. 40).
Such a view ignores, of course, all of the ways in which racial animus and cultural anxiety continue to serve the interests of the wealthy and powerful. American capitalism continues to do just fine with racism and has been notably quiet in response to its increasing public virulence. Indeed, recent research in political science confirms what recent experience makes all too obvious–that the cultural and economic agendas of American conservatism work together nicely. Nor, despite the theoretical implications of neoliberal ideology, is there any great mystery in the fact that the Republican Party, ever more the party of the rich, is also ever more the party of white nationalism and sexual conservativism. The policy preferences of the rich are unpopular. Without the toxic brew of cultural resentment, the Republican Party would not be able to sell them to their voters.
Considerations of this sort do not appear relevant to The Beauty of a Social Problem, perhaps because, when it comes to politics and economics, Michaels is as much a formalist as he is in his aesthetic theory and his criticism. He argues deductively from the “conceptual” premises of political positions and assumes that the inferences he draws amount to the practical import of those positions as well (27). His view of neoliberal economics, as a consequence, is in some respects curiously consistent with the convictions of neoliberalism’s most eager proponents. For he too seems to assume that the central goal of neoliberal reform has been to expand the reach of markets and to make enterprises and institutions more economically efficient. (A more skeptical view might note that, whatever the ideology, in practice neoliberalism has shown far less “commitment to the primacy of markets” than it has to unchaining the power of capitalists to coerce their workers and customers and to abuse the public trust ). The picture he presents is of a world ruled ever more completely by naked market relations and driven by the ruthless laws of efficiency, where economic elites become ever more invested in tolerance as they become ever more comfortable with widening economic stratification. Even as his positions have become more radical and his faith more ardent, then, Michaels’s political views have become increasingly fatalistic. Though he seeks an escape from class relations, he also concedes that “political and economic alternatives to capitalism” seem “hard to conceptualize” (68).
This is the respect in which The Beauty of a Social Problem might look most reminiscent of the aesthetic theory of Immanuel Kant. For, dividing the world starkly between cruel necessity and abstract freedom, Michaels imagines high art as an access to a better realm. Despite his avowals to the contrary, what The Beauty of a Social Problem thereby offers looks less like a political argument than an ethical stance—a demonstration of a stern commitment to higher principles and of distaste for shallow sentiment. It suggests that when we look at photographs like Salgado’s we must resist the temptation to pity and sorrow and think instead of aesthetic design, imagining that in doing so we will have resisted our temptation to human weakness and demonstrated our commitment to a more just society. That is in many ways a compelling and gratifying vision. But in our current moment of rancor and brute dehumanization, there is little reason to think it will be politically meaningful.
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 Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment, trans. James Creed Meredith, ed. Nicholas Walker (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2007), 103; Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism and Selected Prose , ed. Linda Dowling (New York: Penguin Books, 2001), 127, 142.
 See, e.g., T. J. Clark, “Response,” “Migrations: The Work of Sebastião Salgado,” Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities Occasional Papers, 26 (2002), 23-26.
 Michael Fried, “An Introduction to My Art Criticicism,” Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews (Chicago, IL: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1998), 48.
 Michael Fried, Four Honest Outlaws: Sala, Ray, Marioni, Gordon (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2011), 5-6.
 Michael Fried makes the plausible argument that, despite his reputation otherwise, he himself has not been a formalist since the mid-1960s. About Michaels, however, this most recent work suggests there should be no question. The Beauty of a Social Problem, as he explains, is a defense “of a new commitment to form and meaning as technologies of autonomy” (xii),
 Michaels refers briefly to Paul de Man and to de Man’s comments on “Kant’s radical ‘materialism’” (78). Even de Man conceded, however, that such materialism was not an obvious interpretation but rather a counterintuitive reading that could be drawn from an alleged and little noticed aporia in Kant’s writing—one that “Kant’s posterity has not yet begun to face up to.” Paul de Man, Aesthetic Ideology, ed. Andrzej Warminski (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota, Press, 1996), 89.
 As if to head-off the kind of reading that Michaels proposes, Kant stresses not only that “a product of fine art must be recognized to be art and not nature” (135), but that, by extension, nature itself appears beautiful to us only when it is “regarded after the analogy of art” (77). Fine art has “the appearance of nature,” Kant claims, only in that, by comparison to mere “mechanical art,” it must be “free from the constraint of arbitrary rules” – so that the “mental powers” of the artist do not appear to have been “fettered” (135-36). His concern, in short, seems to be not with refusing intention but rather with freeing artistic ambition from the restraint of conventional form.
 Though he dismisses Kant, Michaels appears to view Hegel more positively. It’s worth noting, in this context, that, although Hegel regretted what he saw as the non-dialectical nature of Kant’s architectonic model of human capacities, he nevertheless viewed Kant’s third critique as “the starting-point for the true conception of artistic beauty.” Michael Inwood, ed. Hegel: Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, trans. Bernard Bosanquet (New York: Penguin 1993), 66.
 Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, eds. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1997), 239, 10; on Adorno’s engagement with Kant’s aesthetic theory, see, e. g, Tom Huhn, “Kant, Adorno, and the Social Opacity of the Aesthetic,” The Semblance of Subjectivity: Essays in Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, eds. Tom Huhn and (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1997), 237-58.
 Walter Pater, Studies in the History of the Renaissance, ed. Matthew Beaumont (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2010), 58.
 Wilde, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” The Soul of Man Under Socialism and Selected Critical Prose, ed. Linda Dowling (New York: Penguin, 2001), 142, 127, 151.
 Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics, trans Herbert Marcuse and Erica Sherover (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978), ix.
 Having always claimed that the value of art comes from the way it allows an experience of “presentness,” Fried has a particularly interesting version of this idea. The “ultimate stakes of serious art,” he claims, are “to attach us to reality.” The implication of his argument is that, surrounded as we usually are by manipulation and confusion, we are not ordinarily attached to reality but living in effect in a world of shadows. Fried, Four Honest Outlaws, 24.
 In fact, a less formal approach to high art than the one taken by Michaels might note that gallery artists have a special incentive to seek out recherché ways to deny the exchange value of their work precisely because the art market brings what they do so close to the status of pure commodity trading.
 Thomas Piketty, “Brahmin Left vs. Merchant Right: Rising Inequality and the Changing Structure of Political Conflict (Evidence from France, Britain, and the US, 1948-2017),” January 2018, http://piketty.pse.ens.fr/files/Piketty2018PoliticalConflict.pdf; see also Branko Milanovic, Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2016) and Göran Therborn, The Killing Fields of Inequality (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2013).
 Milanovic, for example, in the course of a careful analysis that overlaps in some respects with Michaels’s case, notes reasonably that “formal equality is surely a necessary condition for overall betterment. But it is not sufficient.” Global Inequality, 229. Even Samuel Moyn, whose critique of human rights politics in many respects echoes the complaints about the language of diversity in The Beauty of a Social Problem, is less extreme than Michaels. “It is hardly fair to treat human rights as a scapegoat for the reversals of progressive politics,” Moyn points out. “Indeed, there is no reason to think that a human rights that stigmatizes ‘superficial’ abuses could not coexist with a more ‘structural politics.” Moyn, “Human Rights is Not Enough,” The Nation March 16, 2018 (https://www.thenation.com/article/human-rights-are-not-enough/)
 See, e.g., Larry Bartels, “Partisanship in the Trump Era,” Working Paper (Feb 7, 2018), Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions (https://www.vanderbilt.edu/csdi/includes/Workingpaper2_2108.pdf) and, Nolan McCarty, Keith T. Poole, Howard Rosenthal, Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 74-90.