Class Composition in the Arts: Operaist Art History

Do artists belong to the working class? Is artistic work a productive activity contributing to the development of capitalism or is it an “exceptional” activity, a form of “decommodified” labor? (See work by Leigh Clare La Berge and Dave Beech for considerations of this question.) These questions have been circulating in the art sector and elsewhere for more than a century, but in my view phrasing them as such can act to obscure the potentials for revolutionary solidarity between and with creative workers. Furthermore, if we have learned anything from autonomist Marxist critiques of Eurocommunist parties, the working class is not something to exalt, but rather to contest, to abolish as part of revolutionary practice. As Jacopo Galimberti describes in the conclusion to his new book Images of Class: Operaismo, Autonomia and the Visual Arts (1962–1988) (Verso, 2022), operaist and autonomist theorists and cultural producers addressed these questions and many others in the ’60s and ’70s through novel re-readings of Marx and critique of the culture industry. Their “discoveries” remain useful today in considering radical action, whether in the realm of art or in urban planning, for proletarian research and inquiries (as carried out recently by the Art Workers’ Inquiry in New York City), and certainty for theorizing a recomposition of labor that traverses sectors of capitalist production. Demonstrated in texts and graphics from Quaderni Rossi, Contropiano, Potere Operaio del lunedi, Rosso, and many other publications that Galimberti revisits in detail (down to fonts and typefaces), anti-capitalist antagonism can put existing constituent systems into crisis rather than call for their reform (or for higher wages, better fees, more art prizes, or more ethnically diverse art collections), and culture, even if maligned by Mario Tronti and Alberto Asor Rosa, certainly plays a role.

In her essay “They Call It Creativity, We Call It Exploitation!,” Katja Praznik intervenes by re-politicizing the introductory questions: “It is a peculiarity of Western art that autonomy should be thought of and philosophically grounded in opposition to economic autonomy.” Indeed, not only did the modernist notion of artistic autonomy as generally considered preclude cross-sector organization and composition in the direction of economic autonomy from capital and the state, Praznik takes the example of institutionalized artistic labor in socialist Yugoslavia to demonstrate how the concept of “creative” work was used to re-mystify labor under state socialism and later on as a model for the fragmentation, casualization, and neoliberalization of labor in the post-1989 period. Thus, even if art working appears exceptional in its forms of remuneration, labor agreements, and so on, cultural work cannot be considered historically exceptional to the capitalist mode of production; rather, similar to forms of capitalist mediation like bourgeois trade unionism and postwar left political parties, critical artistic work can even act as a motor of economic development and for the insertion of proletarian subjectivity into the machinations of capital.

In order to think about “autonomy” differently from Kant, Peter Burger, or indeed Richard Florida and Silicon Valley, we must understand the relations between creative work and political economy as well as those between creative workers and revolutionary movements. We can turn to how Tronti described the centrality of proletarian antagonism to the development of capitalism. In 2012, he his findings from the 1960s, originally published in Quaderni Rossi:

Workers’ struggles determine the course of capitalist development; but capitalist development will use those struggles for its own ends if no organized revolutionary process opens up, capable of changing that balance of forces. It is easy to see this in the case of social struggles in which the entire systemic apparatus of domination repositions itself, reforms, democratizes and stabilizes itself anew.

Similarly, we could say that tendencies in the art sector from the last half-century, like “institutional critique,” “relational aesthetics,” and “social practice,” have assisted in the insertion of potentially radical and otherwise well-meaning gestures into the functions of global systems of extraction, exploitation, incarceration, and statist militarization—whether through the production of financial surplus for art collectors and institutions or through the “artwashing” of institutions actively producing profit for board members through sectors as diverse as private prisons to the sale of crowd control munitions. All the while, most cultural workers—in the expansive sense that would include art handlers, journalists, organizers, and so on—remain under- or unpaid, generally precarious. Indeed, as Praznik cites in her text, many forms of previously “productive” labor have gone through a process of “housewifization” in Maria Mies’s formulation—valorized in the way “social reproduction” has historically been. With the advent of tele-working and other capitalist advancement during the Covid crisis, it’s clear that novel forms of contesting labor’s decomposition are of paramount importance.

Galimberti’s book is a very significant contribution in the English language to the historicization of operaismo as well as movement politics of different groups and collectives associated with autonomia that can help us think through these questions from the perspective of artists and militants who put operaist theory into practice. Coming out a year after Steve Wright’s monograph focusing on printed matter, The Weight of the Printed Word: Text, Context and Militancy in Operaismo (2021), Images of Class performs novel research on the development of these Marxian and dissident tendencies alongside visual, literary, and architectural production and theory. Unlike previous monographs, particularly Wright’s already canonical Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism (2002) which continues to aid scholars and radicals in understanding those currents, Galimberti’s book is a more accessible introduction. Narrativized through printed graphics, films, street theater, mastheads, forgotten conferences, previously ignored working groups, schisms, and much more, he re-introduces concepts like labor composition, the social factory, and the refusal of work for English readers that might better serve those less acquainted with postwar re-readings of Marx. Because “[o]peraismo did not elaborate any sort of general aesthetic, but rather categories, attitudes and approaches,” he writes, the “translation of these ideas into tangible pictures” requires an analysis of the “triangulation between visual arts, political ideas and the production of knowledge” (5). Indeed, his analysis of little-discussed topics in English—Silvia Federici’s 1970s PhD dissertation on Lukács (chapter seven), the participation of radical architecture collectives like Factory City Group in the occupation of municipal buildings (chapter three), or operaist debates on kitsch and populism—flow between different disciplines.

As referenced above, one of the most enduring of operaismo’s “breakthroughs” was situating working class antagonism as a motor in capitalist development, often referred to as Tronti’s Copernican Revolution. From there, operaists concluded that the working class should not be lionized or celebrated but recomposed and contested. This, as Galimberti reminds us, presented a problem for artists tasked with representing the worker if “one posits for the working class a condition of non-identification with the worker,” and if class was considered the “enemy of everything and even itself” (60). Accordingly, the book’s greatest successes are explicating operaist philosophy through visual graphics, literary theory, or proletarian urban planning that confronted contradictions like this one. For example, when discussing Potere Operaio’s lack of a logo, which would have “implied a level of political uniformity,” Galimberti unearthed one proposal by Giovanni Anceschi: a red star with five arrows pointing inside and out. The shape, he writes, “alluded ‘to the dialectic between expansion and organization,’ a phrase that along with ‘from autonomy to organization’ constituted a mantra of Potere Operaio” (217).

The tracking of graphic representations also helps document how approaches to certain questions changed as the long ’60s shifted to the street fighting, statist violence, and repression of the Years of Lead. Discussed in the first chapter, Mario Mariotti’s well-known drawing Good Night Mister Boss (1964) portrays a worker as a small nightmare, terrorizing a slumbering boss, though, as Galimberti shows, the graphic is laden with myriad references including “Communist uprisings during the Weimar Republic, the wildcat strikes of the Industrial Workers of the World, Guernica, etc.” (59). In chapter six, Galimberti turns to another drawing by Mariotti; however, by 1969, after Italy’s “Hot Autumn,” the worker is different: he is huge, intimidating, with eyebrows of flames. He has become a monster, a figure that Galimberti returns to in chapter eight, “The Metropolis and Its Monsters.” Indeed, he writes, the “dehumanization” of the Fiat worker “was positively connoted, as operaismo tended to construe labourers’ increased de-skilling as an opportunity for class recomposition” (213).

Perhaps what will be most useful to those already acquainted with the theory expounded on here is Galimberti’s chapter on feminist movements, “Art Against Housework.” To my knowledge, it is the first text in English, and perhaps only second in Italian, to meaningfully discuss Gruppo Immagine (Silvia Cibaldi, Milli Gandini, Clemen Parrocchetti, and Mariucca Secol), part of the Wages for Housework Campaign, as well as debates by prominent feminist radicals on aesthetics, underlining the role of street theater actions, A-boards, and “counter-information” campaigns that paralleled autonomia’s deployment of information, performance, and sabotage as political weapons (271).

As I hinted earlier, Galimberti’s book translates not only from Italian to English, nor from the realms of artistic, literary, or architectural production to that of extra-parliamentary militancy, but also from the 1960s–1970s to the present, from the context of postwar economic development and resistance at the dawn of mass Taylorism in Italy to contemporary post-Fordist neoliberalism. Indeed, today, when “the cultural sector is severely underfunded and basic human rights are routinely ignored,” (384) operaist critiques of culture as the “value of values,” as “one of the means by which class conflict was sublimated into an edifying ‘battle of ideas’ among people who ultimately looked to a common horizon,” (383) certainly rings true. Thus, the mottos “more money less work” and “we want everything,” work’s refusal, the disruption of the social factory still resonate today and provide frameworks for anti-capitalist antagonism traversing different sectors of work, whether considered “productive” or not, and class as it is recomposed through action. “Much as in Italy toward the end of the 1970s,” Galimberti concludes, “today’s working class is less a stable, coherent identity and more a condition of exploitation, insecurity, dependence and dispossession—an increasing shared experience that demands our utmost critical attention” (386).


Cover image: Mario Mariotti, Potere Operaio, 2 (25 September-2 October 1969): 3. 

Andreas Petrossiants

Andreas Petrossiants is a writer and editor living in NY. His work has appeared in Historical Materialism, New Inquiry, AJ+ Subtext, Frieze,,, Roar Magazine, the Verso blog, the Brooklyn Rail, Hyperallergic, and e-flux journal, where he is the associate editor. He is a PhD candidate in performance studies at NYU where he is researching anti-eviction, squatting, and tenants' movements.