Throwing a Wrench in the "Capitalism Works" Piece

I'm not sure quite where to start my rant on this public art project in Times Square by Steve Lambert (, given that it perturbs me on so many levels. The artist might respond, "That's the point!" And certainly I'd like to respond, "You're right!" Instead, my first disgruntlement with this piece it that it only appears to perturb, and so cleverly.

Submitted by Cindy Milstein on September 13, 2013

Like capitalism, and its "creative capitol" version in city's such as, say, New York City, it lures us with an aesthetically pleasing, humorous, fun thing, asks for and probably receives our voluntary participation (free labor, not even wage labor!), and thus, convinces us to "buy into" a social relation that's hidden by the thing itself. In this case, its very form -- the binary -- merely replicates and indeed reinforces the dualistic worldview engendered by capitalism. Binaries not only erase complexity, and hence the reality of life itself, but also serve to mask the developmental logic of structures like capitalism, making them seem natural and the only possible world--or even the best of all possible worlds.

Then, too, capitalism instrumentalizes all relations, indeed all of life, making everything "equal," exacting, and quantifiable -- with everything becoming instrumentally exchangeable for everything else, with no inherent or qualitative value. What does a pile of "true" or "false" mean here, other than maybe another high-profile installation for this artist? For instance, one quality of capitalism that keeps it going, perhaps more so than ever, is that it does "work" in numerous ways, even as it simultaneously doesn't work. It would have died a quick death long ago as a social system if it didn't supply various things, material and immaterial, that satisfy, notwithstanding all the exploitation and immiseration. It lets us have nifty art installations like this, for example! It makes Times Square even more of an entertainment destination! Yet more subtly, it always holds out promise -- a key to its staying power -- and often that promise is so strong, like the mirage of water in the distance for a thirsty traveler, that we wearily walk toward it, again and again. Marshall Berman, who sadly just died (, wrote wonderfully about this phenomena in his book All That's Solid Melts into Air, which focuses its lens on the developmental logic and elusive appeal of capitalism, and in New York to boot (a good read right now, and good tribute to Marshall's life and work).

Today's capitalism, centered so much around shaping "informational" and "social media" social relations, moreover, breaks apart communities and neighborhoods, histories of those places, face-to-face and truly public spaces, and so many other spots that allow for formal and especially informal conversations around whether capitalism is working for us or not, and if not (which it clearly isn't for most of us), allows for the much more qualitatively meaningful discussions: "What are we going to do about it? About making something else, something far more humane and mutualist, work for us instead?" The "art" here in Times Square seems to mimic the flashy flash-in-a-pan interconnectivity of high-tech "communications" and reproduces its emptiness. The lights keep flashing, the numbers keep increasing, but no one is paying attention, or perhaps, more likely, they are paying ADD attention, ever so briefly and distractedly while munching on a slice of NYC pizza, texting a friend, and contemplating where to go next while digging through their pockets for a stray subway card. More to the point, no one is lingering in prolonged, sustained dialogue, because, of course, no one is listening, including artists. Most artists today, compelled to become entrepreneurial cultural workers to "survive," are thereby compelled into "producing work" that forms part of the worldwide web of sustaining the status quo rather than striving to create works of critique, minimally, that pull the rug out from under viewers, disorient their stance, and make them dizzy with thinking, hard and with others, about the hella mess we're in. Thinking, listening, scheming, dreaming -- and maybe a bit outside the glare of the lights of Broadway.

Long ago, in a jungle far to the south of Times Square, people circulated three questions around and within numerous communities, debating them in person for days and months, and recirculating the responses between and within communities, and debating some more. They, poor people, had all the time in the world -- and yet no time at all. Free trade agreements were being hammered out behind closed doors, far away, maybe even including in New York. The questions they chewed on were not precisely oriented around "Is capitalism working?" but they were certainly similar and intimately related: "What does justice look like?" "Is there justice now in your lives and communities?" "And if not, what should we do about it?" Justice, it turned out, had a multifaceted complexion, yet one that most people ultimately agreed on. Perhaps not surprisingly, that look to justice did not in any way resemble the overall situation that people were laboring under in their lives and communities. "No, we don't have justice!" was the emphatic reply. As for the third question and all the many answers that arose -- the many "yeses" that followed from that one "no" -- it initiated part of the opening chapters to a story, communicated through communiques (for those around the globe) as well as, most especially, the lived and living experiments in new autonomous communities (for those in Chiapas).

Like much of "public" art right now in places like New York, the Lambert piece becomes incorporated into the infrastructure and in fact architecture of a new enclosure, making certain cities the ultra-lavish laboratory for the ultra rich to "live!" "work!" "play!" where "public" space is so hierarchically controlled, corporately sponsored, and/or heavily policed, among other enclosures, that the word itself loses all meaning. That "art" then becomes part of the spectacle, part of the beauty, and/or part of the way that the system can rationalize itself ("Look, us new rich regular ol' dudes are so hip and caring we can underwrite projects like this!") encloses art, too, into a bell jar that suffocates any ability to offer a social bite, much less inklings of life beyond the trappings of capitalism.

I must cut my rant short, since capitalist time calls me back to work, so I'll end with this:

Maybe after you read Berman's book, peruse some narratives from/about the Zapatistas, particularly for those of you who haven't ever heard of them and their imaginative, justice-filled experiments. They'll soon be celebrating 20 years -- this New Year's 2014 -- of visible, artful, dignified prefiguration of what really could and does work versus capitalism, spurred by their complete opposition to it. Maybe rather than this piece of art in Times Square, or the shiny ball that drops at midnight come January 1 in that same spot, the Zapatistas' challenge -- through their practice, in particular -- to negate one horrible, shared falsehood, and offer up many shared truths is instead a good one for us to visit in rebellious arts and lifeways of all sorts.

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This was originally posted on my blog, Outside the Circle, at Outside the Circle,, where you can find other blog-musings and more polished essays. Share, enjoy, and repost — as long as it’s free as in “free beer” and “freedom.”