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Mittwoch, 27. März 2019

Essay: Being (Performance) Artist in Capitalism

This post is only in English and gives a shorter version of my German book about "Being artist in capitalism". It is still a pretty long reading....The red numbers are footnotes that you will find at the end of the text.

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Ralf Peters
Being (Performance) Artist in Capitalism

This is a collection of thoughts and considerations concerning the question how to live as an artist in general and as a performance artist in particular in the current world that is dominated by the ideology of capitalism. How can we succeed in a globalized capitalist society to do our artistic work, to hope for some kind of resonance, and to find the means for a life that offers the space we need for our art – and all this without becoming a victim of the capitalistic logic? I am not trying to give any kind of true answer to these questions but want to offer some material that helps and inspires one´s own contemplation on these subjects[1].

A few things that I need to remember from time to time while writing these considerations:
Capitalism is a mind set from which certain forms of economic activity arise - not the other way round. The end of neo-liberalism won´t necessarily be the end of the capitalist age. I focus on the Spirit of Capitalism, not on the economic consequences, although I keep them in mind.
Trade and monetary economy are not capitalistic per se, but a necessary part of  social life. I as an artist have the right, the permission, and the duty (?) to earn money!
There are non-capitalist economic systems.
There are unjust non-capitalist economic systems (for example ancient Greece or the Roman Empire, whose economies were based on slavery). 
Capitalism and the idea of the modern artist have arisen from the same source, which may be called Modernity or Enlightenment and that has started with the Renaissance. Of course there were people doing art in all traditions and there are types of artists for instance in China and Japan. But the modern western artist who has been the prototype for the globalized current artist is a special and unusual phenomenon that we are maybe able to understand in the context of European history.

There are four regions in which the question how to live an artistic life in the capitalistic world can be explored: the first one is the realm of the inner attitude. How can I adjust my inner situation in a way that prevents me from falling without any protection into the traps that capitalist spirit has put around me? On this level of inner attitude most relevant decisions are made - with strong effects on the other three dimensions. The second is how I organize my artistic work. In which contexts do I find at the same time support and free space for my work? The next dimension is the question of economic survival and some sort of stability in my life that is necessary for creating art. The fourth dimension relates to the political effects of my work.

In my considerations I refer to the German philosopher Max Scheler who has written some articles about the spirit of capitalism in 1914[2]. One reason to read these articles today is the perspective that Scheler took in writing them. He was very critical concerning capitalism but not – like most of the thinkers of his time – from a socialist or marxist point of view. For Scheler even Marxism works inside the capitalist logic and is therefor more a symptom of capitalism than its alternative. Scheler´s own thinking at that time was based on a catholic basis. Catholic anti-capitalism? This sounds more weird than it was hundred years ago when there was a catholic movement against capitalism. The very word catholic in the context of my essay is only used to focus on a special sort of anti-capitalistic thinking and not as a religious or even an ecclesiastical feature.

„Capitalism is at first place not an economic system of distributing possessions but a system covering the whole spheres of life and culture.“
If we agree with this sentence of Scheler that today, in times of globalization, has a universal dimension, we might be able to face the current situation. More or less every human being on earth is affected and infected by the logic of capitalism, no matter if we agree with this system or if we try to resist against its dominant power.
The spirit of capitalism for Scheler has emerged through a historical shift of the general understanding of the world and the motivational structures of life. The first indications of this shift can be seen in the Middle Ages, then in the Italian Renaissance,  and they became strong during the epoch of Reformation. To overcome capitalism in our minds we have to find out how this shift changed our relation to the world, to ourselves and to life and then we might be able to create a distance to this spirit.
Artists are one of the few kinds of people (beside the religious man/woman and the man/woman of nature) who still have a more or less strong access to the ideas and values that were dominant in precapitalist societies. In this sense artists might play a role in the process of overcoming capitalism.

One aspect in which the views of Scheler and Marx differ is their estimation of work for the self understanding of men and women in modern societies. For Marx work is the very value that the proletariat can rely on in his fight for justice in capitalism. This was an important insight at this time but Scheler claims that Marx with his understanding of work is moving inside the context of the capitalistic spirit that derived from a protestant point of view which didn´t exist in catholic thinking. The most important aspect in this protestant approach is a nearly bizarre overestimation of the value of work for men and women[3].
What is the difference in the evaluation of work? For the people in medieval Europe there was no direct link between work and what we would call spiritual welfare or wellbeing. Work was there to be done because it was necessary to survive. The question of how to safe one´s soul at that time was more or less the job of the church and the dominant structure of the christian world everybody was integrated in. Medieval society had a religious background and the order of this world was orientated in the whole towards a christian idea of spiritual welfare. Work had very little to do with it.
The only exception was the life of monks and nuns in monasteries. In their lives work had a higher meaning and was part of a religious practice.
Protestantism made the world to a monastery – as some writers in Scheler´s time said – and all people became nuns and monks in the sense that now work had a religious meaning for everybody. Work suddenly was not only a duty to fullfil but it became a fundamental value for the human existence. Now men are men (for women the situation at that time was different) only because he works! Marx somewhere says that working is as much a human need as swimming is for fishes.
Only through his work men can show their value to gain eternal life after death. Nowadays the religious context of this ideology has disappeared but the strange idea of work as a power for the definition of men and women is still alive. What remained is the idea that work has to bring some sort of profit for the worker. In Protestantism (Calvin) it was a better chance to get a place in heaven. Nowadays it is a better financial situation in the heavens of capitalism.
What is this telling us for the self understanding of artists in capitalism?
Artists are very often in a kind of ambivalent relation to work. On the one hand (hard) artistic work is part of their self image and of their lives. Insofar they are not very far away from the nuns and monks of the middle ages and of their protestant followers afterwards. On the other hand artistic work is often not acknowledged as real work by our societies. („Oh you are an artist! And what do you do during the week?“) Writing books, painting, singing songs, doing performances – this can´t be work, say most of the Bourgeois with a 9to5 job.
Art is very often hard work, but hard work alone is not art yet. Sometimes art needs time to wait, sometimes it is more like a game, sometimes artists need retreat, sometimes exchange with others. The idea of work is much too narrow to define or explain artistic activities.

Maybe it would be helpful to find an understanding of art making that doesn´t need the word work, to prevent it from being trapped into the system of capitalist thinking. This liberation from work will only be successful if we liberate ourselves from the idea that work has anything to do with the value of a human being. 

Beside the overestimation of work there are two other main features of capitalistic logic that Scheler mentions.
One is the quantification of all aspects of human life. Through this quantification everything becomes a product or article in the context of a capitalist logic. Everything has a price. Everything becomes part of the market. The spirit of capitalism changes the general way how we relate to things in our life. It becomes much harder to develop a deep relationship to things; but this is a crucial ability for performance artists who need to create relationships to the material they work with as deep as to their bodies[4].
The masses of things that we have to face and/or possess in capitalism, makes it difficult to create a real relation to these things[5] Compared with earlier epochs today things of our daily lives are replaced for new ones very  fast. (The new - as we will see later - is one of Scheler´s infantile ideals of capitalism.) We change our clothing, smartphones, computers and even our furnishings in a speed that leaves us breathless. In this way we fulfill our duty as consumers supporting the capitalistic credo of permanent growth.

You could think that the simplify-your-life-movement that wants to support a clearing out of the environment of our lives is a counter movement against this flood of products that threatens us to be washed ashore. But maybe even this movement supports the capitalistic logic: The idea of a life with light baggage promotes the capitalistic ideal of a human being that doesn´t carry any ballast that would keep him or her from being flexible enough to continue the race inside capitalism. Things you are clinging to make you lazy.

Performance artist in any case build a strong relationship to the things they work with or they create. In this context a thing cannot be a mere product or article but something I - as an artist and as an observer - have to relate to. Staying strong with this idea of understanding things as been connected with meaning and effects on us, performance artists defend a value that threatens to disappear in capitalism in favor of seeing things just as products and material that can be replaced at any time.

It is good to keep in mind that artist do not produce products. Although art work is often sold on a market the artistic work is not ruled (only) by the idea to make something that can be sold as a product. There have to be other strong reasons for my artistic activity. Otherwise I am just serving the spirit of capitalism.

The third main feature of the capitalistic logic is concerning the structures of social life in capitalism. Scheler speaks from the difference between community and society (Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft).
For Scheler life in capitalism is life in societies which are ruled by laws. Society is based on a fundamental mistrust of its members who are „competitive and rational subjects and balance their conflicts of interests through laws and contracts“. In societies there is a inner tendency towards a „mass of lonely individuals“.
Communities for Scheler are much more based on confidence and solidarity. Here the way people live together is organized by rules that emerge more or less organically from the community and its members. Scheler claims that the medieval structure of how people lived together was based on the idea of community. Modern life is structured in the form of societies.

We have to be very careful with this distinction. I don´t think that Scheler´s analysis is true. In societies of today there is still a lot of life in community style existing (in art, in associations, in NGO´s etc.) and on the other hand society offers some benefits that pre-modern communities didn´t give at all. The most important of these benefits for artists are defined spaces of individual freedom which are guaranteed by law.
But on the other hand nowadays the inner tendency of capitalism to destroy the communal aspects of social life is much more obvious than in the time when Scheler wrote down his thoughts. Today the idea of competition has infected nearly all aspects of human life. It is very difficult not to compete. And competition leads very easily into loneliness. A capitalist answer to this problem seems to be the idea of networking. Networking is based on the wish to make contact to people who can support my aims. The ideal target might be a so called win-win-situation. But it is still about winning or losing, to be better than others, to be successful in the competition.
The non-capitalist alternative is the idea of cooperation. Cooperation means to work together on a common aim that is at the same time at least partly the aim of each individual who is included. Cooperative situations create a phenomenon that doesn´t exist in networks. This phenomenon can be called social freedom[6]. There are forms of freedom that only occur in a social context, i.e. in a group of people who share a common aim. Theater or Performance Art ensembles will immediately know what I am talking about. In creating an artistic project with other people each individual can experience spaces of freedom that only appear because of the group situation. In these situations people have ideas and proposals that would never occur when the same people would be alone and think about it.

Scheler sees four infantile ideals of capitalism that form the capitalist spirit and the forms of action that it triggers. With this list of ideals Scheler does not reach the level of current anti-capitalistic approaches but for the aim to offer some ideas that help artists to stay in distance to the spirit of capitalism it is not necessary to provide an analysis of capitalism in all its details and depths. We rather need a set of tools that helps to be aware when we come close to the logic of capitalism. For some artists the four infantile ideals might be a helpful element of this set.
The first infantile ideal is the big in a sensual way. All children (maybe differing between girls and boys) are fascinated by big things: giants, big animals or machines. In capitalism this naive fascination has become a general directive. The bigger the better. Even the tendency of modern technique to make devices smaller and/or to explore the nano-areas of the world is not contradicting this ideal. On an economic level the ideal of the big is still ruling - mainly in the belief in growth. Growth is one of the gods of capitalism. But the capitalistic idea of growth is a distortion of the original form that comes from nature and is embedded into the concept of becoming and passing, of flourishing and wilting, of ripening and fading. Growth in capitalism believes in a constant increase without producing any losses. Today we know too well how ridiculous this belief has been and still is. The big lie of capitalism is the concept of growth that refuses to take into account the psychic, social and ecological expenses of his disastrous way of changing the world.

The second infantile ideal is speed or fast movements, an ideal that has increased its importance through the digital revolution. Acceleration is a dominant aspect on different levels of our lives. Despite all counter movements (!) that have emerged during the last two decades, being fast is still seen as the necessary condition to be successful in our society. There is a current tendency to understand the domination of speed as an aspect that is part of our human condition[7] and not as having derived from the spirit of capitalism. There has always been the idea that time is limited, but only in capitalism rushing through life as fast as possible became a positive idea.

The third infantile ideal is, in Scheler´s words, the feeling of power. To have power over others and trying to be the first in an ongoing competition are the tendencies which are followed by a capitalist mind. Today, in times of globalization, the economic power that derives from this sort of thinking is at least as strong as the political legitimized power of states and both power centres are in an seemingly everlasting conflict. For Scheler the capitalist wish for power has been linked from the beginning on with the wish for power over nature. Science and technique were formed through this idea to have power over the natural world.
To understand life as competition and to have the will to rule others because you think you are the best are ideas which look absolutely infantile from a non-capitalistic perspective, that supports other values. Artists are carriers of these other values but still they are in danger to fall into the traps of power will. This is especially true for successful artist in fine arts. And in the performative arts there are often power positions like the director or the choreographer which can lead into very destructive situations if the people who have these positions are not conscious about their power. Most people who have worked in a state theatre will know what we are talking about.

The fourth and maybe most important infantile ideal is the new. In capitalism the idea of the new has a nearly religious relevance. Everything that is new is good. Innovation is the magic word of our world. Constantly countless companies, teams and laboratories work to find something new for the markets. Scheler points out that modern Europe where capitalism has arisen has been the first culture ever in which the new is seen as more important and valuable than the old. More or less in all other cultures the challenge has been to learn the old knowledge and wisdom including the values which are accompanied with it and make it to one´s own.
To be able to open to new possibilities and not to stick always to the old ideas is one of the big achievements of modernity. There was the good intention to liberate mankind from the narrow framework of tradition and to give the chance to look for something unknown and maybe better to everybody. Only through this change it has been possible to create something so exciting as the movement we call today modern art. Art as we understand it today needs the freedom to dare a new way bringing something into the world. But artists do know that something that is only new is not yet art and not worth to focus on. Here we can find a clear line to the logic of capitalism. In capitalist thinking the new itself is the value we should follow. But this is only an infantile ideal. Just being new is not a value. It needs a further motivation to make something differently than it has been done before.
Overestimating of the new in capitalism paradoxically has led to a situation in which we have big difficulties to really imagine something new. It seems that we lost the ability to think beyond the status quo of the capitalist system. „Today it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.“[8] The innovations that are presented as revolutions inside capitalism are things like the new generation of smartphones or the self driving car.
Artists have still the ability to think towards new possibilities. They have to be very careful that their work is not just opening the gates to new markets but stay outside of the capitalist logic. This is very difficult and it is important to be aware of these difficulties.

Big, fast, powerful, new – these are the infantile ideals of capitalist thinking. It might be helpful for artists to check from time to time their working situation if and how the four ideals have taken roots somewhere. This is a first step for not being overwhelmed by this capitalistic way of thinking and to be able to decide how much I allow these ideals to influence the situation or how much distance I want to keep.

Beside the analysis of the infantile ideals of capitalism Scheler proposes a typology of human characters who are dominant in the capitalist society. I would like to add a warning before I am going to present some of these characters. Typology can be very helpful in order to distinguish different aspects of a subject that we want to understand better. But it is important to keep in mind that the types we are finding and describing are not to be found in reality. Types don´t exist! Every human being is a mixture of different types and the proportions of the mixture is part of her or his individuality. Extreme right ideologies work exactly with the mistake to identify people of a certain type and isolate them as those who don´t belong to us. My aim in presenting these types is just to give material that might be helpful to question oneself and not to judge others.
Keeping this in mind I start with a type that has a very old fashioned name: the Bourgeois. In the times of Scheler the word Bourgeois was part of the political and philosophical discussion. Bourgeois is first of all one word for citizen, for being member of a certain class. The other word is Citoyen who is member of a state with certain rights and duties.
Marx compared the Bourgeois as the member of the propertied class with the Proletarian as the class member who only has his/her working ability as possession. Scheler follows another idea. He doesn´t want to define the Bourgeois with his possessions or his role in society but through his mental and psychic qualities and tendencies. In this way the idea of the Bourgeois becomes wider and includes people who don´t necessarily belong to the middle class. People from all social groups (including artists) can be bourgeois and carry the corresponding attitudes. For Scheler the Bourgeois is the bearer of the capitalistic spirit. This type that had only a marginal role in most of the European epochs became the dominant factor of modern societies. The reasons for this development are very complex and for Scheler (and Max Weber) they have to do with the rising of Protestantism.
The Bourgeois has a tendency to calculate all aspects of life and he/she has a strong need for safety. He/she is looking for rules and predictability to be able to live in this world. He/she always feels the need to show some results of their living in order to proof their right to exist. He/she has to show that he/she is worth to be part of the world. These are qualities and constraints which were more or less unknown to the people living in antique or medieval societies. They saw themselves much more as being embedded in a cosmos with little need to earn one´s place inside this structure. For Scheler the bourgeois has a lack of basic trust in the order of the world. The center of his/her soul is empty.
I guess that for most of us the described tendencies are not unknown, no matter if we call ourself artist or not.
Instead of finding love to the world the Bourgeois feels the need „to deal with the hostile world, to define it in a quantitative way and to put it in order related to purposes“. The dominance of the Bourgeois „will lead to a system of boundless competition and to an idea of progress in which only the fact of being or having more will be acknowleged as valuable“ (Scheler).
In the current discussions the Bourgeois has disappeared and has been replaced with the consumer. But the consumer is a type too one-dimensional to get all the aspects of the capitalistic spirit that the Bourgeois is carrying.
Artist in general are maybe not so much in danger to focus on a safe and a predictable life and here we are very different from the Bourgeois. (Or better: here the Bourgeois aspects of the typical mixture of our personalities are not the dominant ones.) But there is another danger: Artist normally have to give their artistic work to the world and they get resonance, comments, critics, recognition or they don´t get it. In any case the reaction of a public has a certain impact and it is very easy to create a relation between these impacts and my self image as an artist or even as a human being. Having to prove oneself is a (bourgeois) idea you can´t get rid of very easily...

The story of success of capitalism can´t be understood only with the dominance of the Bourgeois. There has to be another type who possesses courage, the willingness to take risks and – to put it in the economical jargon of today – vision competence. This type is indicated by Scheler as the entrepreneur. This is the type that is willing and able to take economic risks which are crucial for the existence of capitalism. The entrepreneur knows and takes the risks of a business and is ready to take the responsibility for it. He/she often possesses a sort of moral flexibility that helps him to put the capitalistic purposes first and then think about ethic values. We know too well that this flexibility leads easily to an unscrupulous behavior.
The first time that this entrepreneur was seen as a sort of mass phenomenon on the European stage was, according to Scheler, in the 16th century – in the form of the pirat and the buccaneer. In the entrepreneur two figures which were separated until then came together: the warrior and the trader. I don´t know if this theory is still tenable but it makes sense anyway. There must have been an incredible amount of buccaneers on the oceans of the 16th and 17th century. The story of Francis Drake shows how fast these outlaws were able to become an essential part of the state activities and to an well accepted part of these societies.
The entrepreneur is a very ambivalent figure. But there are some strange and maybe disturbing parallels to the modern artist and the performance artist. I´ll come back to this point soon.
The typological couple of Bourgeois and Entrepreneur has developed capitalism to a dominant factor of the world and of mankind and it seems that there is no opponent strong enough to challenge capitalism and to overcome its dominance.

The artist is – beside many other possible descriptions - also one of the typological figures inside capitalist societies. Modern art has its roots in the same ground as capitalism. Art as we know it today is a result of the developments in Europe since the Renaissance. It is very likely that the character of art has to change profoundly in a world that wouldn´t follow the spirit of capitalism any longer.
Keeping this in mind I would like to give some typical aspects of the artist of our times. I am not trying at all to define the artist. I am just trying to sort out my own thoughts about it and can only hope that this is helpful for the reader.
Scheler doesn´t give a typological description of the artist although he/she plays for him a crucial role in the process of overcoming capitalism. It is the artist who keeps alive a certain ethos or spirit that stands opposite to the capitalistic spirit. Some of these aspects of the artistic ethos have been mentioned above.
In our world the idea of being an artist possesses a strong attraction. Living as an artist seems to be a very fulfilling version of existence to quite a lot of people. The philosopher Charles Taylor once said that the type of the artist never before has been so popular and respected than in our times[9]. Why is that so? Why has being an artist such a strong romantic flavor that of course has very little in common with the real situation? I see one possible answer in the aspect that art is connected with the idea of freedom. Artists have more space for self determination than the majority of people. It is one of the necessary conditions for doing art that you are able to decide how to work and which elements or partners you choose to work with. The value of self determination has no direct relation to the question of success as an artist. Self determination is a value by itself and it can help to prevent that the artist´s work is primarily seen as a product with a price on the market.
In the encounter with one´s own curiosity, with one´s needs and questions artists use all materials and means that seem to be helpful in the process, i.e. more or less all aspects in the world that allow to give form to the subject of interest: the body, the voice, sounds, colors, stones, wood, clay, memories, feelings, imaginations, fantasies, languages, processes, spaces, relations, movements, atmospheres. From this work emerge things, works, results, objects, phenomenons, processes, and situations that don´t follow the idea of utility, that don´t give clear and definite answers to the questions which were asked and which are aesthetic but not necessarily beautiful formations.

Only after the division of the world into a capitalistic part that is useful, controllable and computable and the other part that is not seen as useful but has been a fundamental aspect of life in precapitalistic societies, art could gain this strong value and meaningfulness that it possesses today. After constructing a world that was appropriate for the victory of capitalism art moved into the role of the other, the opposite and the marginal. Only art – beside the residua of religion and nature as spaces for longing – dedicates to this other side of the world and keeps the memory alive for an understanding of humanity in which utility is not one of the relevant dimensions of life.
Modern art dealt with this role in different ways during the last centuries. Well into the 19th century art tried to defend the sphere of dignity against the attacks of science and capitalist thinking. Around the turn into the 20th century big parts of the Avantgarde became self-orientated and elitist. Relevance for the life conditions which were the context of this art making process had very little meaning inside these artistic tendencies[10]. The situation started to change after the second world war when art began to be more interested in a closer connection to life. John Cage is one of the pioneers of this development that led in the sixties and seventies into the history of performance art, the prototypical life art.

But even for artists it is not easy to stay on the opposite side to capitalist spirit. There is this extremely high ability of capitalism to incorporate all counter movements that occur as a reaction of the capitalist spirit. All anti-capitalist protests of the last decades - artistic or not - have been successfully economized – maybe with the exception of Occupy that wasn´t big enough to make it into a product. The  criticism that occurred from the artists against capitalism have been incorporated since the late 1960ies and played an important part in the change of the very bureaucratic structure of capitalism into something much more flexible.
The artistic criticism didn´t and still doesn´t focus mainly on the social aspects of injustice. These (very important) fights and discussions mainly do happen inside capitalistic logic. Artists criticism is founded more on the thesis that capitalism doesn´t offer enough possibilities to develop your personality and your talents and become in the deeper sense a human being[11]. Humanity is not a value in itself for capitalism. But if we look at the economic world of today it seems that growing of personality, strong individuality and flexibility – values that are needed by artists - are very much supported from the capitalist system. Artistic values like self fullfilment, flexibility and creativity have become a central element of the role model for people in the business. In fact it has become a necessity to possess these competences if you want to be successful. It seems that artistic criticism misses the point nowadays.
Cultural scientist Christoph Bartmann maintains that Performance Art has become the art form for late capitalism. Manager and Performance Artists are the fraternal or sisterly bounded prototypes for the modern entrepreneur. For both the idea of working with processes play a big role[12]. For both the idea of self fullfilment is crucial. „Become who you are!“ said Nietzsche and this is the big challenge today for everyone who wants to act successfully in this system. For Bartmann it is the performance artist who can show what this means: „Only in performance we prove that we have something like a self and that we are different to others. That we are ourselves when we work and not just somebody who takes orders. (...) The artistic performances, as radical and unconventional they might be – contribute considerably to the modeling of the new business subjectivity“[13]. This is a strong thesis that doesn´t take into account how much the artistic values get distorted when they are included into the capitalist context. Capitalism uses these values to increase profit and not because it has any interest in the growing of humanity. These values have turned into tools for economic success and only as long as they function for this purpose they are supported by companies etc.
But still it is hard to deny that on a structural level the performance artist offers a sort of role model for the entrepreneur and manager in late capitalism. At the same time despite these disturbing parallels there are still some crucial differences. One is that artists have the better reason to engage into a project, a reason that has usually nothing or very little to do with the above mentioned four infantile ideals of capitalism. The infantile ideals create the ideological framework to which the artistic qualities and competences are subordinated when they meet business world. The effect of this subordination is that the qualities become trivialized and infantilized. Self fullfilment is not the same thing inside the capitalistic spirit and on the artistic field. In some sense you cannot include art into business because through the incorporation the qualities and ideas change immensely their value and their meaning.
One aspect that might help to clarify this difference a bit further is the way how artists work with doubts. As artists have to experience quite often, doubts are an integral element of the artistic process and not, as in the business world, a sign for the need of self optimization. Effective problem-solving strategies don´t function for the arts because we need the problems as material for our artistic work.
Scheler also contradicts the thesis that art can be incorporated by the capitalistic spirit because this thesis fails to see one crucial aspect. The artistic elements lose their meaning and importance inside the business world because capitalism possesses a very different hierarchy of values than art – and than most pre-capitalist societies! Scheler talks about a „revolution of values“ in capitalism. The role of artists as critics of capitalism is so strong because they are more or less the last representatives of an ethos and an understanding of the world that doesn´t follow the principles of capitalism. The question who uses or possesses creativity, flexibility or autonomy are secondary in this context. The spirit of capitalism revalues everything that it incorporates.
All this of course does not imply that artists and their work cannot be integrated into the capitalistic system. There are dominant structures like the globalized art market. It is impossible for artists to work and live absolutely outside of capitalism. This is one of the reasons why we need to find a clear distance in our minds from the capitalistic spirit. Only then there is a chance to overcome this spirit not only as the dominant ruling power of the world but also as a sort of mind set inside the individual human beings.
Here are some proposals how to proceed as an artist on this path:
-       to keep an inner distance to the logic of capitalism and to look for alternative logics which are more appropriate for art and an artistic life,
-       focusing resolutely on the own artistic questions without bringing into account the aspects of financing and marketing too early,
-       to create a self image of a practitioner who uses oneself as an example of a human being and tries to explore what this could mean,
-       to develop one´s own artistic program that forms life and practise,
-       to find appropriate ways of working with other artists (cooperation instead of competition).

Theses proposals do not support the idea of a bohemian artist who has to be poor. It is important to ask how an artist is able to survive and to have the means to work inside the economized world and at the same time to put the above mentioned great demands on him-/herself. Scheler makes a suggestion that for me seems to be worth to discuss. He states two axioms that help to keep the distance to the capitalist spirit and allows to live in this system.

1. Axiom: As little I - as somebody who produces works of a spiritual culture (geistige Kultur) - owe to the economic society, so little owes the society to me for what I am producing.

2. Axiom: Since I am  - apart from my artistic production – a member of this economic society, I have the duty to make my living in an honest way outside of my activities as an artist.“

This is a clear statement and a good starting point for a discussion (not the end of it!). Let us start with the second axiom that evades the usual romantic image of the artist who only lives for her or his art. Who hasn´t heard a sentence like: Do nothing only for money? This is by the way a saying that you can even find in management books for self optimizing strategies. Now Scheler comes and says: Earn your money in what way ever as long as it is honest and keep your art free from financial and capitalistic considerations! This is at least very consequent.
For quite a lot of artists it will be difficult to follow this idea because they haven´t learnt much else than their art and they have to take bad payed jobs and/or to start teaching. This is in fact exactly the situation a lot of artists have to face. The problem is that most artists need to give so much energy and time into earning one´s living that there is not enough energy left for the artistic activities. Is there a solution? Unconditional basic income?
Another thing that Scheler questions with this second axiom is the idea that only artists who are able to dedicate their whole life to their vocation are really professionals. And everybody else who has another job is in danger to be seen as amateur. Scheler says the opposite. If my art is dictated to the logic of the capitalistic market, it is impossible to bring it into the world without spiritual damage[14]. Only if I divide the economic sphere of my life radically from the artistic one a space of real freedom for my art can open up.
How to live and how to earn money is always an individual decision based on one´s own personal situation in life. There is no general rule. Still to me it seems worth to consider Scheler´s refusal to divide artists in the usual way into professionals and amateurs.
In the first axiom Scheler also draws a clear line. The economic society doesn´t owe me anything and I don´t owe anything to it. This claim is pretty far away from how we see the relation between art and society usually.
There is a difference between the economic society with its capitalistic logic and the society in a broader sense with elements who still resist to follow the spirit of capitalism. Here art will always find some support.
But does society in general needs art? Not easy to say. Do human beings need art? This is another question that needs longer considerations. Do artists need art? Yes.
Beside the fact that art has become a sort of product for an art market, it has one other important function inside the economized world. Art often helps to mitigate the negative effects of capitalism and helps to make life in this system bearable. This therapeutic function is a legitimate task for the arts that is also taken by sports, by music industry or holiday industry. In the capitalistic system Bourgeois and consumer have quite a set of options to compensate their despair and to ventilate their anger. In this sense some people seem to need art. But is it possible to get my artistic self definition from this task? Is it enough for me as an artist to help making life more bearable for people? Is this a cynical question? What about the subversive power of art that wants to find an alternative to the capitalistic spirit? Art as a form of resistance? Is making art a political activity? Is it possible to make political interventions with art without loosing the artistic character of the actions? Is politically engaged art more than decorative indignation? These questions are crucial for performance artists who act very often in public space or in other words: in the political sphere.

But still this field it is not the place to find the answer to the question how I can find my position as an artist in the capitalistic world. Political engagement of artists can easily still follow the spirit of capitalism. Even in cases when the art is meant as a statement against capitalism.
Capitalism is not working like a political ideology, like Marxism or neo-liberalism. Ideologies have (roughly speaking) the habit to see the world through the glasses of their own world concept and to interpret the facts only in this way. Contradictions only show a lack of understanding the ideology or how to improve some details of it. Capitalism is more open at that point. The capitalist spirit recognizes contradictions and in doing so creates the possibility to colonize these counter movements in the long run. Capitalism in the end will support these movements as long as there is money in it. But the structure of the capitalist spirit or logic will not change through these ways of resistance.

With Max Scheler we can say that the spirit of capitalism represents a system of values that includes a very different hierarchy than all other known social systems. The ethics of capitalism possess a flexibility that can be frightening. In some way it is beyond good and evil, as long as the system can capitalize social movements and developments.

What is the connection between these considerations and the question of how to be an artist in capitalism? As long as artist want to build and keep a distance to the capitalist spirit, we have to be aware of the big danger that our attempts and alternative concepts can be colonized by capitalism. How can we prevent this?

1.    I don´t know.

2.    With precise thinking! Everything that is taken over by capitalism is at the same time distorted. Distortion happens here through a change of the ethical contexts. Our task (?) as artists is to contextualize as precise as possible. In other words, we have to create a (private or social) conceptual frame that doesn´t follow the logic of capitalism.

3.     We can try to develop a non-capitalist ethical system that is clear and strong enough for not to be colonized by capitalism.

There is a lot to do...

[1] There are two sources for these considerations. One is my essay „Being artist in capitalism“ that I have written in German (Künstler sein im Kapitalismus, Athena-Verlag, Oberhausen 2018), the other is my blog that I write about these issues in German and english (
[2] I don´t think there are english versions of these articles. In German the titles are: 1. Der Bourgeois; 2. Der Bourgeois und die religiösen Mächte; 3. Die Zukunft des Kapitalismus, first published in Max Scheler: Vom Umsturz der Werte, Leipzig 1919 (download:; there are other versions in the Internet and a book: Max Scheler: Ethik und Kapitalismus, Wiesbaden 2010. Between the two world wars Scheler has been an important voice in German philosophy. Now he is nearly forgotten but I think some of his writings (not all) are worth to be read again, not as a sort of truth but as an inspiration.
[3] Scheler in his time wasn´t the only one who questioned the understanding of work in capitalism and made a connection to the protestant ethics. More famous than Scheler is an article of Max Weber about „The Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism“ (1905 and 1920). There are english versions of the text in the internet.

[4] The performance artist Terry Fox in an interview with the magazine Avalanche in 1974:
Question: How does your body function in that kind of heterogeneous situation?
Terry Fox: The body is exactly one element among others, one of the links in the chain.
Question: So you reduce it to the status of the other elements.
Terry Fox: No, I raise the other elements to the status of the body.
[5] Rilke has felt this loss of relation between thing and men very strongly and made it to a main issue of his poetry.
[6] The word Social Freedom was used by the philosopher Hegel already; the contemporary German philosopher Axel Honneth uses it in his work in great detail.
[7] The German sociologist Hartmut Rosa analyzes this and other tendencies in his work; see Rosa: Social Acceleration: A new theory of modernity, Columbia University Press 2013 and his books in German.
[8] A quotation you find in the writings of Mark Fisher, Slavoy Zizek and Hartmut Rosa.
[9] I can´t remember where Taylor said this.
I am aware of the fact that this positive image of the artist is very much attacked by the extreme right. But this is another story although it has much to do with our questions. When capitalism doesn´t fulfil any of the promises it gives, right wing movements become stronger. The extreme right always sees art and artists as one of the enemies whereas capitalism rather tries to incorporate art into their world. The reaction of the artists to these two different politics have to be different, too.
[10] I am aware of the many exceptions to this mainstream process: some branches of DaDa, Expressionism, Futurism, Bauhaus, to name a few.
[11] In the German tradition it was Friedrich Schiller who expressed these criticism for the first time: in his „Letters Upon The Aesthetic Education of Man“ from 1794.
[12] It is interesting to see that the word Performance occurred more or less at the same time in the 1950ies in business (Peter Drucker used it in his books about management), in philosophy (as the performative turn: J.L. Austin) and in art.
[13] Christoph Bartmann: Leben im Büro, München 2012, p. 216. Maybe this role modelling is especially strong for women in late capitalism. Performance Art icon Marina Abramovitch seems to represent for a lot of people the self defined woman who is at the same time boundlessly willing to suffer and to toil.
[14] Having this claim in mind it could be interesting to discuss the works of artists like Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst and others.

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