Skip to main content

The Beauty of a Social Problem

Photography, Autonomy, Economy

Bertolt Brecht once worried that our sympathy for the victims of a social problem can make the problem’s “beauty and attraction” invisible. In The Beauty of a Social Problem, Walter Benn Michaels explores the effort to overcome this difficulty through a study of several contemporary artist-photographers whose work speaks to questions of political economy.

Although he discusses well-known figures like Walker Evans and Jeff Wall, Michaels’s focus is on a group of younger artists, including Viktoria Binschtok, Phil Chang, Liz Deschenes, and Arthur Ou. All born after 1965, they have always lived in a world where, on the one hand, artistic ambition has been synonymous with the critique of autonomous form and intentional meaning, while, on the other, the struggle between capital and labor has essentially been won by capital. Contending that the aesthetic and political conditions are connected, Michaels argues that these artists’ new commitment to form and meaning is a way for them to depict the conditions that have taken US economic inequality from its lowest level, in 1968, to its highest level today. As Michaels demonstrates, these works of art, unimaginable without the postmodern critique of autonomy and intentionality, end up departing and dissenting from that critique in continually interesting and innovative ways.  

240 pages | 8 color plates, 28 halftones, 4 line drawings | 6 x 8 | © 2015

Art: American Art, Photography

Literature and Literary Criticism: American and Canadian Literature, General Criticism and Critical Theory


"A shining example of how to think about art and politics without reducing either term to the other. . . . It is a virtue of Michaels’s book that it does not seek merely to be agreed with; rather, it channels the force of its examples to challenge major assumptions about what it means to engage with art in a political way, even and especially when it is beautiful."

Los Angeles Review of Books

“Michaels adroitly advocates for an acknowledgement of the economic and political structures that have influenced the development of select photographs commenting on an increasingly stratified society. . . . Recommended.”


“Remarkable. . . . What is immediately apparent is Benn Michaels’s ability to explicate the inextricable relation between neoliberal economic forms and the formal interventions of contemporary photography while avoiding the numbing obfuscation of the professional academic, the rhetorical flourishes of the art critic and the political diatribes of the militant.” 

Prefix Photo

“Michaels offers deft interventions in debates around concepts—such as autonomy, indexicality, intention and absorption—which have preoccupied art and . . . literary theorists over recent decades.”

Year’s Work in Critical and Cultural Theory

"The Beauty of a Social Problem is a great book; it is challenging, it is timely in its sense of political urgency, and it is intellectually stimulating in that it forces readers time and again to question the hegemony of academic common sense."


Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1 Formal Feelings
2 Neoliberal Aesthetics
3 The Experience of Meaning
4 The Art of Inequality: Then and Now
5 Never Again, or Nevermore


Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press