Books On My Desk: Art’s (Proletarian) Struggle and the Oldest American Book

I get knocked down, but I get up again. Just up from a multi-day bout of food poisoning (not recommended) followed by a multi-day internet outage due to the wind bringing down all manner of trees in our little seaside town with its Wild West infrastructure. Here, I continue on in my seemingly Quixotic quest to clear my desk of photography books.

Art In the After-Culture: Capitalist Crisis and Cultural Strategy by Ben Davis
Published in 2022 by Haymarket Books, “a radical, independent, nonprofit book publisher based in Chicago” with the book itself “printed in Canada by union labor.”

What everyone really wants to find under the tree on Christmas morning—but is afraid to put it on their list for Santa–is a book on Marxist art criticism. I wasn’t afraid!

The book, a collection of essays written by the National Art Critic of the popular Art News site, tries to make sense of the rapidly evolving (or perhaps, devolving) art landscape. Everything is filtered though some sort of Marxist point of view, and Davis doesn’t make you guess what he is opposed to. The first essay in the book (essentially a stack of quotes) in the third paragraph notes “our unequal and rapaciously alienating capitalist society” and on it goes from there. What Society should look and act like is not quite clear but the times well live in are grim indeed.

Backing up a bit for most of my readers—yes, Marxism (vaguely defined) is alive and well in university art departments. Sociology departments, too. A few years back I analyzed a national database of textbook usage at the college level, searching for books with the word “Marx” or “Marxist” in the title—and then looked at which university departments most commonly assigned those texts. You might be surprised to learn that economics departments barely assigned anything at all, with Das Kapital making the list, probably in the history of economic thought courses. But over in sociology the ground was more fertile—the textbook list was awash with Marxian titles. Marx’s own writings, biographies of Marx, Marxian analyses of this and that. Although humorless, even Marxists must recognize the irony of tenured professors, often from privileged backgrounds, espousing Revolution.

Full disclosure: I wore a sweatshirt with a portrait of Karl Marx in my twenties. It was my favorite. I also subscribed, despite my poverty, to October magazine, the Leftist art theory journal published by MIT. I regret one of the two.

Most of the book is “Fellow Travelers Only” but even a novice to art writing would zoom in on Chapter 4, “AI Aesthetics and Capitalism.” Davis wrote this before the recent, rather astonishing, developments in AI, so I was curious as to how the essay would stand up—indeed, even survive—the advent of Midjourney, the bot makes pictures that easily pass any Turing Test.

Chapter 4 is my favorite chapter in the book. Davis faces his own (utterly forgivable) mental block in that he seems to assume deep down that AI art will necessarily be some sort of imitation of existing art and doesn’t seem to consider at all either AI-guided art—such as with Midjourney where a human enters text prompts to create the artwork or, more automatically, where another AI program creates those prompts, perhaps while analyzing audience reactions to its output. I would have faced the same mental obstacle just a few months ago as well. But what does come across here is someone honesty wrestling with the ramifications of what is about to happen, none of it good, to art. Throughout the chapter Davis is at his best, writing without Marxist buzzwords and without reflexive animosity toward the dominant forms of our society.

I like very much his closing example here, that differentiates AI art of any level of technological advancement with human made art. (It is also one of the two principles I’ve decided can differentiate AI art and my own work and that may underscore the way forward for my own art). He writes that some aspects of the experience of viewing art, of experiencing art, are simply “not amenable to simulation”—even simulations of the Midjourney kind and beyond, I think he would confirm. Pictures drawn by children, her suggests, show little in the way of technical advancement but yet—even if the artist is not known to you personally—can offer a powerful “art experience.” That same drawing by an AI would offer nothing of the sort.

Of course, I’m not considering the possibility that the ghost in the machine might have a real name and be self-aware and want to express itself via art. AI art might not need to eliminate human-created art for our conception of art to be destroyed. We are already hard at work on that, thank you very much. But Sydney, or whatever the machine calls itself, will know our collective desires before we do and will astonish and amaze like few other artists. And, as Davis points out, that may be good enough to please almost everyone.

Códice Maya de México: Understanding the Oldest Surviving Book of the Americas
By Andrew D. Turner
Published by the Getty Research Institute in 2022

Also under the Christmas tree was new book on a very old book, one of the four remaining from the mysterious Mayan culture. Nothing about the Mayan civilization seems well understood and every few years it seems fundamental discoveries upending some of the most basic pillars of Mayan scholarship. The essential problem is the mysterious decay of the Mayan cities, which were then swallowed up by the rain forest and largely abandoned to this day, and the widespread destruction of Mayan cultural artifacts, including books, by the invading Spanish.

This book looks at the earliest of the surviving Mayan códices (and the only one still located in the Americas). It was only recently confirmed as being authentic, after a somewhat Ian Flemish-ish backstory of the book being discovered, brought to the attention of Mayan scholars, and then spirited to the the United States just ahead of laws that would have prohibited its legal transport.

The Códice itself is missing ten or so pages—half of the book—but the entirety of it was some sort of guidebook for rituals associated with Venus, where the movement in the heavens played a seemingly large role in Mayan society. The essays here, all written independently of each other by different scholars, offer the background on what is known about Mayan bookmaking and the surviving books, the Mayan calendar system, and the specific history of this artifact. The final section of the book takes the Códice page by page and suggests an interpretation of the imagery and text, which starts to make some sort of sense, even to a layperson, given the background of the preceding essays.

Whatever the true nature of Mayan society, ritual violence seems to have been at its heart (no pun intended). For example, Venus, as shown on the sixth page of the Códice, is personified by a fearsome-looking deity, holding in its left a large blade that resembles a restaurant-style pizza cutter. This is the first appearance of Venus and the planet makes quite an entrance in the guidebook with the kneeling prisoner held by his hair in the process of being beheaded, blood gushing from its severed neck, the deity beginning to raise the head into the air.

If you want more, see my earlier review of William Frej’s extraordinary photobook on Mayan ruins (I cannot recommend it highly enough) and for a summary of books on the Mayan civilization see my overview (or just go out and get a copy of Jungle of Stone: The Extraordinary Journey of John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya— I don’t get a dime if you click on that Amazon link, just do it).