Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad

by Michael Bise June 6, 2016

Highgate cemetery, London, UK

Last year Germany proposed several amendments to its cultural protection legislation. As reported by Artnet, “all cultural artifacts valued at €150,000 ($165,900) or more and older than 50 years must be granted an export license.” Many artists and art professionals protested. Georg Baselitz and Gerhard Richter respectively removed and threatened to remove all of their loaned work from German museums. Both artists grew up in a post-war Germany nearly destroyed by a nationalist dictatorship and, until 1989, divided between the socialist East and the relatively democratic West. Restrictions enacted by the state against the ability of individuals to freely trade private property on the grounds of cultural nationalism smell like jackboot leather to those familiar with the smell.

This battle between free-trade capitalism and national socialism isn’t limited to international art politics. It’s equally visible in places like St. Louis, Missouri. Researching past Creative Capital writing grantees to decide if it was worth my while to apply I came across an online art publication called Temporary Art Review co-founded by a grantee named James McAnally. Coincidentally, Core fellow Taraneh Fazeli chose to publish her essay Sick Time, Sleepy Time, Crip Time: Against Capitalism’s Temporal Bullying on this platform in response to my recent critique. Reading an essay titled Making art politically: a reflection on Open Engagement 2016 by Anthony Romero and Abigail Satinsky I found the following phrase: “…how we care for our persons is necessarily a collective pursuit and requires us to conceptualize our individual personhood outside of colonial ideas of property and ownership… .”

I’m not an economist. I’m an artist. I’m guilty of using the word ‘capitalism’ carelessly. It tends to stand in for colonialism, racism, homophobia, and misogyny. Each of these words is in turn filled with still more contradictory meanings. Put simply, capitalism is an economic system in which a nation’s industrial and cultural production is not controlled by the state but by private individuals for the purpose of personal profit. I can’t help but feel suspicious when two graduates of the Art Institute of Chicago, an exceptional university with an annual tuition of $42,000, propose that artists, writers and thinker should “deemphasize the individual and its sibling, exceptionalism, in hopes of replacing them with collectivity and mutuality.”

In any society, culture must emerge out of a base of economic production. No food no paintings. Cultural production that emerges from an individualistic capitalist society, whose state protects equality of opportunity under the law but makes no claims about guarantees of equality of outcome, will reflect values like independent thought and originality. It will also result in inequality because some people are smarter, more talented and hardworking than others. Large-scale oppression is carried out by people who refuse to accept inequality.

People are not equal in tastes, values or abilities. Because people are unequal, they interpret the meanings of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” differently. For varied goals to be pursued by unique individuals the foundation of society must be freedom, not equality. Slaves and prisoners are equal to each other in the eyes of the master and the state. The imposition of equality is accomplished by force by those who are, as Orwell put it in Animal Farm, “more equal than others.” In his I Have a Dream speech Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said the word “equality” twice. He repeated the word “freedom” 23 times.

Socialism, the word used to describe the 20th century alternative to capitalism, describes an economic system in which the state controls a nation’s cultural and industrial production for the purpose of the welfare of the society. Under cultural socialism the forms and subjects of art emerge out of a set of institutionally approved ideas about what art’s purpose should be. Artists and writers who parrot approved jargon about the purpose of art may be rewarded in the absence of intelligence, talent or hard work.

I was recently referred to as an “individualist.” It was meant as a slur but it was an accurate description. I think it’s morally wrong to abstract human beings into categories. My lived experience has proven to me that the individual is the basic unit of measurement for human beings. People deserve to be judged on the quality of their character and not the color of their skin, gender or sexual preference. The only alternative is to view people as groups defined by race, sex and class.

No civilization has ever been purely capitalist or completely socialist. Economies are always mixed. They’ve evolved through billions of decisions made by millions of people over thousands of years. If I’m honest with myself, the basic principles of individualism and competition at the heart of competitive capitalism are the principles in which I’ve always believed most strongly. As an artist I try to make work that is better and different than the work of artists I admire. When I decided to pursue a career in the arts I understood that I was entering a competitive marketplace of ideas and that there was no guarantee that my work would be better than or different from anything else.

After 15 years of superficial commitment to culturally Marxist ideals, it’s difficult for me to admit that I have always believed that the imperfect, unequal system of capitalism offers the best opportunity for the individual human being to escape poverty and resist the dehumanizing effects of authoritarianism. Marx’s patron Friedrich Engels believed that at a certain stage of human development the socialist state would “wither away” and people would finally live in a purely communistic society. I confess that my tolerance for the authority required to impose equality has itself finally withered away.


Correction: When originally published, the above essay incorrectly attributed a quote from Anthony Romero and Abigail Satinsky’s essay, ‘Making Art Politically: A Reflection on Open Engagement 2016,’ to James McAnally. 


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Jean de Guerre June 6, 2016 - 12:42

What on earth is this nonsense? Please actually read Marx before you spout this drivel. And capitalism is an awful system for art; it keeps many artists trapped working for wages while letting their creative gifts wither because they don’t sell.

A. MacClure June 6, 2016 - 19:59

What McNally is quoted as saying and what you sayz he sayz are not the same thing. Maybe you should provide the fuller quote wherein he describes his longing for the forceful abolition of property. What he’s actually quoted as saying is just platitude. Maybe there’s more. But your reader sure as hell wouldn’t know it. Additional, how it relates to to the ease whereby Richter can sell his godawful paintings, Nazis, and the rediscovery of your adolescent copy of Atlas Shrugged is mysterious! You really need a different format and place for Capitalism v. Socialism, and, oh, coincidentally, Taraneh Fazeli.

James McAnally June 7, 2016 - 11:14

When making an ad hominem argument, make sure you get your credits right. The quotation referenced as a centerpiece to your argument, “How we care for our persons is necessarily a collective pursuit and requires us to conceptualize our individual personhood outside of colonial ideas of property and ownership,” was not written by me, but by Anthony Romero and Abigail Satinsky and published on Temporary Art Review. Please post a correction or at least a link for clarification if, for no other reason, to allow them the “ownership” of their ideas.

Michael Bise June 9, 2016 - 12:40

I incorrectly and accidentally attributed a quote from Anthony Romero and Abigail Satinsky’s essay, Making Art Politically: A Reflection on Open Engagement 2016, to James McAnally. For a more accurate view of McAnally’s views please see in which he describes a “Manifesto for an art organization we can live in an with.” Here are two excerpts:

IV. To hold money as a tool to be used and a horizon to be overcome. The methods of accessing money should be ethical and the uses of money should be to grow the whole structure, to support the needs of artists and of the public, and to care for the individuals within it. As a nonprofit, this articulates a fundamental aspect of the form: for money to be a tool for public good, to take care of those individuals and ideas our society does not. To echo the attempts of for-profits through accumulation, competition, and over-professionalization is to empty the form of its force. It is to fail every level of what we mean when we say the public, who have enough businesses as-is, but too few forms of care.

VII. To consider the intersectional implications of our actions in the Anthropocene, in America, in an evolving present. Injustice has no place within an institution. The new institution, as with the new artist, protests.

seth June 7, 2016 - 16:35

I knew there was going to be an Atlas Shrugged reference… amazing how quick it came. Now I’m just gonna sit back and wait for the Trump reference. It seems like so many people get caught up with the details of your pieces and discredit them without seeing the forest through the trees. Maybe you need to spell it out more clearly. Let me try (but please correct me if I’m wrong). I think this is a beginning and general argument defining and opposing what many people are calling the “regressive left.” It’s a left mindset that is so far left it has come full circle into being the very thing it opposed in the first place – categorical discrimination and rule making based on mysticism all for the greater good. Back in the day these bigots were part of the dominant white patriarchy. Now, these new bigots are demanding a world view based on identity politics, which coincidentally applies categories of people and rule making based mystical ideas of race, gender, class, etc. That’s all too familiar for my taste. You can’t beat oppression with more oppression, even if it comes from a seemingly different direction. I’d rather have freedom. Now, everybody, let’s go build that wall!

Michael A. Morris June 7, 2016 - 19:55

I think this is a bit of an overstatement, calling the new left “new bigots”. Does identity politics feel restrictive? Of course. And it might even be the case that it has certain implications that resemble a kind of conservatism, and I suspect over the next few years it will go through changes to dial back certain imbalances (call-out culture, for instance). But to call it bigotry or oppression seems pretty silly to me.

Is there a debate to be had about whether some of these necessary subversions against patriarchy and racism have gone too far? Totally. Asking whether free speech might be sacrificed to silence voices that foment hate and violence is a really hard issue we’re going to have to talk about. But this way of framing that issue really muddies the waters with less than useful accusations.

John P June 7, 2016 - 22:01

a really hard issue we’re going to have to talk about
we need to have a serious discussion
i want to start a dialogue
my art questions

These are all beaten dead horses on the same train of thought that pussyfoots for the sake of ensuring the industrialization of social malcontent.

It’s called the bill of rights, dude. If you give them away you don’t just get them back.

seth June 8, 2016 - 16:22

From Merriam-Webster:
Full Definition of bigot
: a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance

I don’t know about your experiences, but I’m sticking with bigot. Doesn’t seem silly to me at all.

Michael Morris June 9, 2016 - 02:43

I just don’t agree, man. To me, your argument is starting to sound a lot like the people who tried to correct Spike Lee when he made a distinction between racism and prejudice based on who has institutional power. Call it bigotry if you want, I guess, but please at least acknowledge that what you’re accusing Fazeli and the “regressive left” of can’t possibly be the same thing as what is practiced by those with institutional power (i.e. straight white patriarchy).

And sorry to use more big art words to make my argument. I’ll try to restrict my use of the english language to those words that reflect how totally simple moral ambiguity is.

For that discussion with Spike Lee, see here:

seth June 9, 2016 - 17:41

Well you don’t have to be part of an institutional power to be a bigot. I do understand the difference there and I’m not naming any names. I was merely trying to sum up what Bise was getting at to a degree. And please, use all the big art words you need… believe it or not, I do understand them.

Michael Morris June 10, 2016 - 01:01

I think you get what I mean already, but for clarity’s sake, I don’t mean people who are within a specific institution, but those of us that are empowered by institutions.

And the snark about art words was mostly aimed at John P’s earlier comment. I know we’ve all got the same vocabulary or we wouldn’t be reading these articles. Clearly I was annoyed by the suggestion that having to parse a complicated issue is “pussyfooting”.

Jimmy C June 8, 2016 - 00:19

3 legs, done.

Michael Morris June 8, 2016 - 02:11

Sorry the way you talk doesn’t have room for nuance. That must be frustrating.


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