Sean McCann has the last word in the final installment of a dialog with Walter Benn Michaels, which began with his critique of Michaels’ book The Beauty of a Social Problem: Photography, Autonomy, Economy in the May issue of Politics/Letters Quarterly.

I’m grateful to Walter Benn Michaels for continuing this conversation and to the editors of Politics/Letters for giving us the space to continue the debate. Like Michaels, I have found our disagreement clarifying.

I think Michaels is right, however, that our differences may be too fundamental to be resolved. He argues that a great deal hinges—politically and epistemologically–on the autonomy of art. On this point, if on no other, he is in agreement with the varied anti-formalists who are the main antagonists of his book. I am doubtful about the significance of this issue, as I am about the long tradition of post-Kantian aesthetics to which the autonomy of art has been a central preoccupation.[1] As my previous reply meant to indicate, I think that preoccupation implies an implausible metaphysics of art. (“Art’s difference from the world,” Michaels tells us in the final sentence of Beauty, “counts as the work it does in the world.”) To be clear, it’s not that I don’t think artists can make a fruitful problem out of the status of their work (or of its relation to the history of artistic conventions and theories of art). Nor would I deny that such problems can be the source of aesthetic interest and expressive power. It does not follow, however, that such works are therefore ontologically distinctive or that they have unusual (and intangible) political or cognitive effects. Indeed, I don’t think that works of art should need to be justified by what Michaels refers to as their “particular use” at all.

It is his contrary view that continues to make Michaels’s aesthetic theory seem to me similar to Immanuel Kant’s. Ironically, their comparability is only made more evident by Michaels’s reference to Paul Guyer. Michaels quotes one sentence from Guyer’s authoritative explication of Kant’s aesthetic theory, but his short selection doesn’t render Guyer’s argument quite accurately.[2] As it happens, Guyer anticipates and rejects precisely the view of Kant that Michaels briefly invokes in Beauty. Although he acknowledges that Kant appears inconsistent in places, Guyer claims that the impression that “natural beauty serves as a “paradigm” for the “work of art” has served to “drastically misrepresent” Kant’s “real theory” (352, 353). According to that theory, works of art differ from the beauties of nature for exactly the qualities Michaels emphasizes: they are intentional, representational, and communicative (354-61). What’s more, Guyer explains, for Kant, “the beautiful may serve as the symbol of the morally good because there are key analogies between the experience of beauty and the nature of moral motivation and judgment” (366). Change the word “moral” to “political” in that last sentence, and you have an argument remarkably similar to the case made by The Beauty of a Social Problem.

I confess that I do think racism is latent in much of American society and indeed “ready to be activated” by malevolent interests. I think such a view fits the evidence of recent history, as well as the deeper history of the United States. Years of demagoguery about, for example, Barack Obama’s place of birth, about blue lives mattering, about the alleged evils of immigration and the existential threats ostensibly posed to America by MS-13, the New Black Panther Party, and “radical, Islamic fundamentalism” all appear to have been quite effective in heightening racial resentment—and, in all likelihood, in driving a rise in hate crimes and right-wing extremism. So, too, have been the efforts of Donald Trump and his ideological supporters to advance an all but explicitly racial definition of American citizenship.[3] Few if any of these ginned-up controversies involved even the pretense of concern about the “anti-White bias” Michaels emphasizes. Instead, all have clearly reflected anger about the prospect of eroding racial hierarchy—an anger matched by comparable fury at eroding gender hierarchy–and all were highly successful in motivating partisan sentiment in favor of a conservative political agenda. [4] Indeed, if racism were not in fact latent and ready to be activated, such demagoguery would be mysterious. Why would politicians and propagandists so consistently seek to stir it up, if they did not plausibly believe they could achieve their ends by doing so?[5]

I am glad Michaels believes that there is no inconsistency in a politics that seeks economic justice while also opposing racism, sexism, and homophobia. One would not know this from his claim that “anti-discrimination . . . functions as a defense” of “inequality,” or from his remark that elite college professors who take notice of “the ugly truths of racism” are merely “express[ing] . . their class interest.”[6] Nor would one would guess it from the way, more generally, Michaels consistently disparages concern with the inequalities of race, gender, and sexuality—as he does, for example, in his essay in non-site where he attributes the political stance of Jacobin magazine to its audience of “rich kids with short attention spans.” It seems difficult to square, as well, with his demand that political preferences be decided in light of ultimate decisions that are so abstract as to be unreal. What are you for, he insists we answer, fairness or equality? I think that is neither a concretely relevant nor a real choice.[7]

I am sorry to disagree on this point, as on others, because I share Michaels’s sense that the language of race is often used to naturalize and mystify the injustice of a class society, and I agree with him that a politics that emphasizes the pursuit of equality is both preferable to, and has a greater likelihood of success than, one that emphasizes diversity or fairness alone. In my view, such a politics will depend on building a coalition that will combine a range of interests and priorities. I think it will be helpful to that effort not to assume that the concerns of one’s nearest potential allies are foolish. Michaels appears to prefer a different approach.


[1] Michaels aligns his views with those of Michael Fried; I am influenced by the genealogical approach to the philosophy of art exemplified by, e.g., Noel Carroll in Beyond Aesthetics: Philosophical Essays (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2001).

[2] What is at issue in the passage Michaels quotes is not what Michaels calls “the intentional character of works of art.” As Guyer notes, that point is a given. The question is how, if art works must perforce be intentional, they can nevertheless appear to Kant as examples of “free” (as opposed to “dependent) beauty and as occasions for “pure” (as opposed to interested) judgments of taste. Kant’s solution, as Guyer later explains, is to distinguish fine art from all other human activity and to view it as a product of genius.

[3] See, e.g., “The Flight 93 Election,” the celebrated pro-Trump essay by Publius Decius Meius [Michael Anton] which warns of “the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners” who have “no tradition or, taste for, or experience in liberty.”

[4] For empirical evidence in support of this view, see Michael Tesler, Post-Racial or Most- Racial: Race and Politics in the Obama Era (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2016). For more evidence that politicians can strategically motivate racist sentiments that are denied public expression by norms of civil discourse, see Tali Mendelberg, The Race Card: Campaign Strategy, Implicit Messages, and the Norm of Racial Equality (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2001). On misogyny as a system for enforcing norms of gender hierarchy and its reliance on potent, but typically unexpressed, moral expectations, see Kate Manne, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (New York: Oxford Univ Press, 2018).

[5] Michaels claims that such a view is a “reification” and, quoting Judith Stein, suggests that it is questionable because it allows for the possibility that racism reflects an ideology of social hierarchy “divorced from the concrete and complex experiences of social groups in particular circumstances.” This is a curious view–not only because Michaels evaluates the art and politics he prefers from an apparently contrary perspective (the less rooted in existing social arrangements they are, they more meaningful they appear to him), but because the terms of Michaels’s own social analysis are themselves so abstract. His description of “capitalism,” for example, is so sweeping (profits and inequality are involved) as to sound nearly coterminous with human existence. (This may explain why Michaels remarks that it is difficult to imagine an alternative.) Against such a view, I find compelling the point made by scholars like Fred Block and Quinn Slobodian–that to conceive of capitalism as a coherent, unified, unmodifiable and, ultimately unknowable system, is to unwittingly accept the terms of neoliberal ideology. In this light, the question of whether widening economic inequality is driven primarily by “the primacy of markets” or by the politically enabled exacerbation of market power (i.e., by monopoly and monopsony), or by other factors, seems to me, by contrast to Michaels, a highly important question. See, Fred L. Block, Capitalism: The Future of an Illusion (Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press, 2018); Quinn Slobodian, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2018), conclusion.

[6] Michaels misunderstands why it is wrong to think of the views of college professors as the expression of their class interest (and his own as independent of interest). The issue is not the relative morality of the two kinds of people but the fact that, in seeing the college professors’ views as determined by their interests and his own as disinterested, Michaels rejects considering their ideas equally and on their own merits.

[7] Michaels frequently critiques the view of his antagonists by framing them in light of abstract and false choices. He does that here when he says that we can seek to make markets “more fair” or aim “to get rid of them.” Similarly, in his first response to me, he argued that we can seek “a program of social justice that seeks to guarantee everybody an equal opportunity to get a good job” or one that “seeks to make all jobs into good ones.” But even a moment’s reflection reveals that this is not only an unlikely but an unnecessary choice. Consider a perfectly egalitarian society where all jobs were good. Would individuals still have competing preferences? Yes. People want to do what they like and what has status. (Even in a world of perfect wealth equality not everyone can be a university professor.) Would it thus be wrong, even if all jobs were good, to limit opportunities on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, or other invidious considerations? Yes. I.e., fairness and equality may well be in tension in some circumstances, but they are complementary, not opposed goods. More concretely, Michaels does not consider the possibility that, in ordinary life, structurally biased employment, housing, or financial markets may well increase the bargaining power of employers, landlords, and lenders and thus not only be unfair but exacerbate the very economic inequality that rightly concerns Michaels.