Poems and Parables on the Political Utility of Art (2021), by Swedish critic Karl Katz Lydén is a slim volume with a lofty aim: to establish new terms for thinking art’s use-value. At just over 80 pages, it is an imaginative rebuttal, in lineated verse, of the notion that all art under capitalism suffers one of two fates. On the one hand, art – like any other commodity – can only produce false images of reality; on the other hand, efforts to overcome the separation of art and life are inevitably recuperated by the capitalist class. As Katz Lydén, former news editor at Kunstkritikk and currently a PhD candidate in philosophy at Stockholm’s Södertörn University, sums the problem up in the book’s ‘ante-scriptum’: “All attempts to help art break out of / its glass prison have failed.”
Against this melancholic view, the author raises three objections. The first is that art is not like other commodities because it does not mainly consist of someone else’s labour. The second is that theory is just as implicated as art in reproducing capitalist relations. Moreover, since the mind unfolds in fields other than expository prose, critical approaches more attuned to negative capability are necessary. “I use my blood for looking,” he waxes in one of the book’s rare lyrical moments. His third, and final gripe, is that art’s political utility consists in neither consciousness-raising nor effecting social change; rather, art becomes politically useful insofar as it points spectators towards the possibility – albeit an impossible one – of not only unalienated labour, but a world in which labour isn’t our primary form of social mediation. That is to say, for Katz Lydén, art becomes politically useful when doubling-down on its lack of social and political agency and embracing its autonomy.
Yet, as he explains in an endnote, this argument only holds for “the few and rare works of real force, beauty, or reflection.” Presumably, this does not mean works by, say, Anne Imhof or Studio Olafur Eliasson, for which the author’s points clearly do not apply. Rather, “our perfect artwork,” is a barricade built and signed by the artist-shoemaker Napoléon Gaillard during the Paris Commune of 1871. For Katz Lydén, this is an example of art making its own law; “it is beautiful,” he writes, “because it fulfils its own purpose.” Somewhat paradoxically, that purpose is what literary critic Kristin Ross has called “communal luxury,” the collective elaboration of aesthetic gestures and use-values that can be claimed by anyone. In other words, art that ceases to be its own category because it is lived. That this ideal rapprochement between art and life came within the context of a highly mythologised moment of revolutionary social struggle seems to lie at the heart of the book’s politico-aesthetic program.
I’m broadly sympathetic with the author’s faith in art’s capacity to secure degrees of autonomy on its way to re-enchanting the world. And his argument feels especially relevant for the Swedish context, where, at a safe distance from the commercial art market, art has by and large been assigned the instrumental and somewhat dreary role of social-democratic lubricant. However, in its insistence that art can overcome its separation from social reality, Poems and Parables seems to overlook that struggles for artistic autonomy have actually permeated late-capitalist society and provided it with new models of management and accumulation since at least the 1960s. Indeed, if contemporary divisions of labour are blurred to the extent that critics can also claim to being artists, poets, translators, curators, editors, and researchers, this owes less to the possibility of an art that is communally lived than to economic precarity and the commodification of self that results once everyone in a society is made to become if not an artist, then a cognitive labourer. Acknowledging this contradiction doesn’t foreclose the fact that works of art, even those which claim to be ‘socially-engaged’, can still give rise to transformative aesthetic experiences – even communal ones. It does, however, help us better understand the ground on which today’s struggles for autonomy are waged.
Although I appreciate Katz Lydén’s decision to perform his argument surrounding art’s lack of social agency in what is arguably the most marginal of forms, I nevertheless remain unconvinced. Incorporating “stolen poems” by Adorno, Cardi B, and Gaillard, among others, the book adheres rather too closely to the theory-pop-riot formula that Commune Editions (American poets Joshua Clover, Juliana Spahr, and Jasper Bernes) identified in a 2018 essay as “late period style.” By comparison, Katz Lydén’s didactic poetry reads more as a reflection of the confines of the Swedish ‘edu-factory’, including its joyless rhetoric. This is hardly an example of the poem writing its own law. But, as the author himself remarks, “all artworks can’t be barricades can they now.”