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A Christmas Carol: Dedicated to Scrooge, And His Art Collection

McKenzie Wark11 December 2013

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“Property not merely has duties, but has so many duties that its possession to any large extent is a bore. In the interest of the rich we must get rid of it.”

--Oscar Wilde



Let’s start with a defense of Xmas, or of what is essential to it: that there is a tree, and a gift for a child under a tree, that is “from Santa.” It is a way to enact for a child the opposite of Nietzsche's theory of universal debt. An adult, usually a parent, enacts the possibility that the child owes the world nothing. On the contrary the world can make for the child at least one moment of joy. Something will come from the world for the child.



For the child, Xmas has nothing to do with 'consumerism'. The gift just appears. Its a bit of what the surrealists called the marvelous. For the adult, it is a way to give to the child without expecting the child to be grateful to the parent. Rather, it is so the child can know that world itself could be generous. Nothing is owed in return. At least not yet. Later, the child can be let in on the secret: that we are staging a marvelous ritual about how the world itself could be experienced as bounty and plentitude, but we do so in a long loop through the generations. The gift the child will owe does not come until much later, when the child grows up, and owes a gift in turn to another child. Such long loops are what constitute the plural subject ‘we.’



That the critique of Xmas as 'consumerism' is a pseudo-critique is easily seen. What is supposedly wrong is the 'excessive' consumption of Xmas. This lets supposedly normal consumption off the hook. Genuine critique would of course start from the reverse premise: Only excessive consumption is of any interest because it is outside the realm of calculation. So-called 'normal' consumption is what calls for critique. The purely excessive, aesthetic consumption, the gift from nowhere, is the only defensible form, and not only of consumption, but also of the gift.


Xmas is pagan, and this is what places it outside of Jewish and Christian understandings, of gifts, of aesthetics, of time. Christians understood its power and tried to coopt it. But the Christian version distorts it by tying it to the birth of their sacrificial savior. The pagan way is about understanding excess in and of itself, not as compensation for sacrifice. The true ‘spirit of Xmas’ is no spirit at all, but a material share of the world, offering itself, apparently unbidden, to the child. It is a modern version of an ancient idea, elaborating itself for a post-Christian world. It is the artifice of the real itself.



It is all too easy to underestimate the child's tacit consciousness of the artificial, ritual nature of the Xmas ritual procedure. At quite an early age the child can know very well that the presents partake of the banal everyday, that they are bought by their parents from shops, hidden under the bed, wrapped and arranged; but the child wholeheartedly enters into the collective manufacture of a surreal enchantment. The disenchantment is not that children 'grow up' and discover that Santa exists only as an imaginary device, rather than as a really existing magical figure. The real disenchantment comes in discovering the distinction between the device and its enactment, and the terrible power that comes with wielding it.



Let's give thanks for the ignorance of American jurists about basic ethnography! It has been decided that while a nativity is a religious thing, the Xmas tree is not. These most sacred trees can stand alone on public property because of this misunderstanding of their nature. If you want a nativity in the town park, you have to let the Menorah stand next to it (and some anti-Semite will probably deface it.) Heaven knows what will happen if the Muslims want to be acknowledged too. So most public spaces just go with the tree under the illusion that it is secular. Thus a great pagan image can be found throughout the land every winter.



When the winters came, the ancient Germanic tribes would bend a bough of an evergreen and slaughter a beast across it. Thus the three kinds of life the ancients knew -- vegetable, animal and human -- were united in one marvellous act. It matters that the key is that most common thing, at least in their world -- the tree. Its nothing special. It isn't a representation. The tree is a tree. The ritual signals the desire that the plenitude of the tree be doubled by a plenitude of game, and hence of the tribe as well. It is not in this sense a sacrifice or an intimation of a future sacrifice. The tree is not only a sign of nature as gift, it is itself the gift. Neither lack nor sign is at the heart of this ritual. This lack of lack is the great scandal of Xmas. This is the pagan core that has to be erased or denied, or declared 'secular'.



One of the rising ideologies of our time is the injunction to reduce one’s ‘carbon footprint.’ The logic of the commodity economy has to be extended to the general economy, and everything has to be quantified now. Of course, the ruling class would never dream of including itself in this reduction. It will still fly about the world, between its several homes, eating organic strawberries flown in from the south. It is everyone else who has to practice self-denial and sacrifice. Against this, Xmas stands for the opposite aesthetic: That the world really is a place of excess. Even in the deep of the Northern winter, life abounds. The abundance calls us to itself, to a passing on of a sense of it, from old to young and on again. The only ‘excess’ that needs abolishing is the ruling class itself.



There aren’t really good languages for non-commodity, non-sacrificial acts. A task of our time might be to free the aesthetic from its complicity with commodity forms, even attenuated ones, and practice it again, in the everyday, as a sensibility of the gift. Art is Xmas. The art not of signs but of rituals. The art of withdrawing the hand that gives and leaving just the gift as given.  



The tree, for example, isn’t a sign of the infinite. Its just about "lots." Lots of trees, not the impossible infinite. It is not mediating between the material and the 'spiritual'. Its mediating different kinds of materiality. And of course like any good paganism, these things have a local dimension. The tree can mean plenitude in central Europe, but not on the steppe, where trees are rare. There grass is the thing that both is, and is the sign of, "lots” in that world.



Like most rituals, we inevitably do Xmas badly, precisely because the thing at its core is so utterly astonishing. It is almost impossible to just accept evergreen life itself as a gift. The intergenerational side of Xmas is about passing on just how hard life is to live with. Rituals exist precisely because the perfect aesthetic form for the marvelous can’t be found. The imperfect ones are repeated, and their imperfection is the art.



Xmas is not philanthropic. There is no love of our species-being really involved. The love of parents for children is coupled with a puzzled involvement in the inexplicable quality of the world. Xmas is more like a philoxenia than a philanthropy: A love of making the event of the strange.



The great philanthropists turn out, on closer inspection, to be nothing of the sort. Their acts are, like Xmas, about the making present of some strange excess in the world. There is no love of our kind involved. Nancy Cunard, Gerard Lebovici, Edgar Kaufman: these were not great philanthropists. They were patrons of the strange, practitioners of philoxenia. They did not ‘collect’ art and erect vanity museums. They were the secret Santas of another life.



The art of an era is nothing but the portrait of its patrons. It portrays the problem of excess as it is experienced in a given moment. In the domestic aesthetic of Xmas, as in the pagan rite of old, the problem is a simple if surreal one, of making the excess of the world over itself appear momentarily present. Once a ruling class has command of a sizable part of the surplus, the problem becomes an almost insoluble one of how the excess of the world can be made to appear as ‘naturally’ conferring on a ruling class a right to make that excess present itself. The artifice of the ritual, its purely formal and self-involved character, rises in direct proportion to the uselessness of the patrons in command of it.



Ours is a time, not so much of bad Santas, as ridiculous ones. Nothing could be more ridiculous than the contemporary art hoards of Eli Broad, Alice Walton or Charles Saatchi. The sheer uselessness of today’s rentier class and the vanity of its ‘philanthropy’ are perfect mirrors of each other. It is of course misanthropy that is most on view in the ridiculous attempts of today’s ruling class to divest itself of some fraction of the surplus which increasingly accrues to it. The ‘good works’ of the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation show nothing but the purest contempt for our species. We are to be saved from ourselves by the minions of our great wise white masters. It makes the unleavened idiocy of contemporary art collecting seem benign and charming by comparison.



Contemporary art mimics the form of its key patrons, that fraction of the rentier class that lives off finance capital. Both financial ‘products’ and these contemporary products of the art economy have no purpose in life other than to valorize themselves. They say nothing, do nothing, make nothing of the excess of the world present. Indeed, they deny such an excess even exists. They are bought and sold in a pure logic of their boughtness and soldness within a restricted economy. Not everyone can invest in a hedge fund, or purchase certain blue chip artists. The restricted economy of such scraps is the only guarantor of their value.



It is not the fault of artists that they are now obliged to make work for one of history’s more useless and clueless ruling classes. Theirs is a bespoke business, dependent on patrons. But one might at least take on the task of even more closely making the art portray its real subject. Contemporary art gets by on alibis. As if it could gesture to a politics of the aesthetic or the aesthetics of politics, as if it could redistribute the sensible independent of any redistribution of the tangible. All of this is just dishonesty. Art is a portrait of its patrons, and nothing else. The old Dutch masters at least knew who their clients really were and what they wanted.



The hard path for art would be to abolish itself in favor of Xmas. Instead of making ‘works,’ the work of finding the tangible excess of the world, of making again the ritual of presenting the thing that is usually withdrawn, and withdrawing the human who is usually all too present, so that the world presents itself to the human and the human to the world, so that the human knows what it has been given and what it has keep and give again. To find again the long loop of imperfect presence in the world which gives itself back to the world, which both learns and teaches the power of the double act.



But that is asking too much of art, and far too much of its patrons. For the sensibility of the gift knows no patrons. It has no need of a ruling class. The surplus belongs to the world, not those who clip the rent from the restricted economy that inflates like a bubble, in and against it. Perhaps instead art could aim to the sophistication it claims for itself but does not really possess. It naively thinks it makes ‘open’ works, exempt from any particular meaning. As such it is just the spitting image of a ruling class without qualities.



At best, art can have an anticipatory role. It can anticipate patrons by whom it would like to be owned. Contemporary art thus loves three strategies that portray nothing so much as the forms of accumulation its current or emerging patrons enjoy. Firstly, there is outsourcing, where the art is made by somebody else. Secondly, there in ‘in-sourcing’, where the art is made by its own audience. Here the artwork just furnishes the chatroom and collects the rent. Thirdly, the art disappears entirely into the concept, and the concept disappears entirely into the exchange. The artist is a purveyor of intangible values. Thus the three kinds of art mirror the three kinds of capital: either someone else makes it, we make it for ourselves and still pay for it, or nothing gets made but we pay for it anyway.



With finance capital in particular, it is not just that financial ‘products’ are like contemporary art. They are contemporary art. The great lost work of our time is all those Powerpoint presentations used to sell one or other financial product or speculative instrument. Why do they not have pride of place in our museums? The great financial institutions are not so much the house and croupier of a casino as art dealers, peddling the intangible to the solvent.



It was Charles Fourier, the merchant, rather than Marx the journalist who grasped the art of money best. He worked out a whole aesthetic of thirty-six kinds of bankruptcy, from simple theft to dazzling stratagems form making money mysteriously alight on one account when it was supposed to be in another. In a text worthy of any formalist art theory, he gave this lexicon of moves lovely names: the honorable, the gullible, the visionary, the simpleton, the sentimental, the affluent, the cosmopolitan, the transcendent, the closed-column, the deep-formation, the Attila, the blissful, and so on. Truly he was the Clement Greenberg of formalist analysis in the field of money art.



The financiers of our overdeveloped world have added little to the art beyond Fourier’s time, except perhaps a certain vulgarity. In one of our great institution of finance, the clients are referred to as ‘Muppets.’ This would then be the difference between Xmas on the one hand and the art of finance on the other. One treats its audience with the respect one gives to one who will join us and supplant us. The other imagines it puts its hand up your ass and wiggles your limbs.



Perhaps it is not surprising then that when one makes are for patrons who are psychopaths, the art itself becomes psychotic. The art of capitalist realism is exactly the same as the art of socialist realism. The only difference is that Stalin really did have qualities and taste, and imagined art as at least functioning in a world and with a people, bloody and vicious as it was. The art of capitalist realism lacks even those semblances of virtues.



Spend some time with one of the great collections of Egyptian funeral art and two things become apparent, one after the other. The first the overweening vanity of the patron, commanding that such stores of creature comforts and signs of power be stored up for another life. The other is that the art itself is not really addressed to anything human. It is a human address to an unknown and unknowable world. This is what makes it great patronage, a kind of philoxenia. Its vanity is in the service of a great address to the many-ness of the world. All great patronage has that quality. It both rewards itself and withdraws. The great patrons, even in modern times, did not entirely know what it was that they sponsored. Their portrait exceeded them, and portrayed them as exceeding, as in surplus to themselves.



The only art worthy of patronage would by definition not be ‘contemporary’ art, but would exceed it. It might not even be legible as contemporary art at all. It would be more like Xmas. The patron would sponsor some small moment of the exceeding of the world by the world, from which not only the patron but the artist withdraws their hand, until such time as the gift can be returned. Until such time as we all know this double gesture. Until such time as the world is in most need of it.


* Charles Fourier, The Hierarchies of Cuckoldry and Bankruptcy, translated by Geoffrey Longnecker, Wakefield Press, Cambridge MA, 2011