Although Steyerl’s arguments in some cases unfold at a relatively abstract level, several of the essays address more directly the character of the art world itself, and its role in beautifying neoliberal capitalism. ‘Contemporary art feeds on the crumbs of a massive and widespread redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich’, Steyerl writes, adding that ‘it lends primordial accumulation a whiff of post-conceptual razzmatazz’. Art also mirrors the forms of present-day capitalism itself: on the one hand the figure of the artist offers a flattering model for autocrats and financier-patrons—‘unpredictable, unaccountable, brilliant, mercurial’—while on the other, the production of art depends on increasing amounts of precarious labour. In Steyerl’s view, unpaid interns and part-timers form a ‘reserve army of imagination’ that makes the mega-shows and Guggenheims of the world’s oligarchies possible. Exploitation within the art world tends to remain invisible in the art that is produced, however; even in ‘political art’, Steyerl observes, politics is ‘always happening elsewhere’.
[...] The thought that we might be the rubble implies that history will advance without us, protagonized by other subjects; we would be left in the position of Kafka, who maintained that there was ‘plenty of hope—but not for us’. Would this seeming abandonment of agency really be desirable? Steyerl might counter that the very phenomenon of subjective agency is beset with contradictions; the purpose of identifying with and ‘activating the thing’ was to skirt them. But the appeal to the object’s inert potential arguably relies on a reification of the subject–object split, whereas it would surely make more sense to retain a sense of the mutually interwoven, fundamentally mediated character of both; as Adorno put it in a late essay ‘On Subject and Object’, ‘the difference between subject and object slices through subject as well as through object’. The goal might then be not so much to identify with the object, to become the rubble of history, as to gain a demystified, non-alienated knowledge of its differentiation from the subject. Adorno again: ‘Knowledge of the object is brought closer by the act of the subject rending the veil it weaves about the object. It can do this only when, passive, without anxiety, it entrusts itself to its own experience.’