Middle Ground #7: Put Your Money Where Your Moth Is – Thinking About Mark Fisher and the Art World

Essay / April 2022

Middle Ground #7: Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is – Thinking About Mark Fisher and the Art World
By Jacob Barnes

          Another install, another week missed — for all posterity, it will be abundantly clear that I started this newsletter before the year‘s program was in full swing, because I couldn’t conceive of writing these installments now. However, a trip to Berlin has given me sufficient time on planes, trains, and automobiles to write, and with late being better than never, I’ve managed to get this installment down. Fortunately, I have known what this installment was going to be about for some time, so hopefully it will be fleshed out, if not on time.

If you‘ve spoken to me over the last few weeks, I probably talked at you about Mark Fisher. I was late to the Fisher train — the late Goldsmiths professor, for obvious reason, holds more weight in the UK than in the US — but reading Capitalist Realism refreshed my memory of the intellectual lineage in which he places himself. I remembered how crucial the Frankfurt School and outgrowths of Marxist thought had been to my education, and how thoroughly they had shaped my worldview. (In hindsight, it is of course only fitting that the same university that housed the (in)famous Wharton business school left me with a liberal arts education steeped in Marx‘s intellectual tradition.) That is to say, Fisher came as less of an awakening and more of a reminder, leaving me to re-examine much of my current work through a revitalized lens.

While much of Fisher‘s writing felt prescient, I was particularly drawn to his comments on bureaucracy, and the foundational capitalist ideology that subtends the business language of “goals,” “targets,” and “optimisation.” The likeness Fisher draws is to Stalinist bureaucracy, under which success lies not in actual achievement, but in the declaration of achievement. Under these conditions, success itself is never possible, but it is only the admission of this impossibility that punctures reality, and thus forces tension with the Real. Understood in capitalist terms, success is never possible, but fealty to rhetoric of progress is an ideological, and thus existential, imperative.

Do the hollow promises and “objectives” of nominally philanthropic arts organizations not smack of this? I’ve already ragged on the I.G.A., but when I receive the “weekly updates” that only hawk more artwork catalogue-style, it feels clear that the hard work lay foremost in declaring the organisation’s mission.

But this is also borne out in the nature of the industry — the language of change has become endemic to smaller galleries, and still, the cogs of a deeply inequitable industry turn. Indeed, this appeal to goals, and the achievement of largely superficial ends, stands not in opposition to capitalist tendencies, but is a very symptom of it.

This too recalls Fisher’s writing on capitalism’s capacity for ideological dissent. So long as behaviours remain the same, postmodern “anti-ideologies” and cynicism towards capital-driven modes of living generate a sense of critical remove, and thus passivity. We buy, sell, and speculate on the market — here, not grain or oil or other commodities, but the products of individuals’ intellectual and physical labour — but do so by directing our capital towards organizations that give themselves a self-congratulatory pat on the back for “changing the art world.”

I do this too — I participate in the market, because that’s what it means to both progress artists’ careers and partake in the broader commercial art community. But the hope is, over time, that more and more people put their money where their mouths are, quite literally. What’s more, I don’t direct this as a broad, anti-capitalist wish-upon-a-star, but instead a very real call for those who participate in this necessary market (because it is necessary) to use its proceeds to humanistic ends. To be clear: not as charity, not as political statement, but simply towards bettering the lives of those around them. This is not — because it cannot — be too much to ask.

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