The Elusive Dream of Universalism

Examining class politics today, you would be forgiven for thinking the left has lost interest in the battle between the rich and the poor, that economic antagonism is now the domain of the right. Tune into NPR, and you will hear about the dearth of racial diversity in the witching community long before anyone mentions industrial relations, while at fundraisers for Trump-backed GOP candidates, donors wax poetic about the blue-collar worker as though he were an endangered species.

Likewise in Britain, recent strikes by rail workers have, as Philip Cunliffe points out, prompted liberal commentators to draw lame “season-of-discontent” parallels with the 1970s. And while Labour’s Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner were sure to attend Pride, a few brave members of the party’s front bench broke instructions not to visit picket lines, having remembered, against all odds, the connection between workers, the labour movement, and by-now-archaic ideals of solidarity.

Workers themselves, meanwhile, sometimes appear as if they no longer know which class they belong to. Many blue-collar workers in the United States, for example, resolutely insist they are members of the “middle class,” a distinctly indeterminate category in the American context, while downwardly mobile urban professionals increasingly see themselves as tribunes of the proletariat. What class means is as muddled as at any time since the publication of The Communist Manifesto.

If much of the left is unconcerned by this crisis of class, it’s because “workers” are only one of the groups exploited by capitalism, and there is no shortage of other victim categories demanding attention. That the list is never-ending, as Todd McGowan observes in his book Universality and Identity Politics, is a design feature of contemporary liberalism. Class oppression has to compete with an ever-growing list of infractions against identity that, according to BLM UK, “includes but is not limited to homophobia, lesbophobia, biphobia, queerphobia, transphobia, […] misogynoir, enbyphobia, ableism, racism, […] Islamophobia, whorephobia, ageism, fatphobia, eugenics, discrimination, [and] stereotypes…”

Yet as David Swift points out in his recent book, The Identity Myth, there is no reason to assume that any of the experiences behind these labels correlate with what we once understood as class—and even less reason to imagine that they map onto class politics. Not surprisingly, the left’s shift of focus from economic exploitation to identity marginalization has material consequences for the shape of progressive politics. The Seattle chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, for example, now redistributes 33% of its membership fees as racial reparations. In Britain, the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities’ report was boycotted by the left for paying attention to the economic resources of single-parent black families, instead of dwelling on their ethnicities. Repeat this process often enough, and conservative governments and socialist opponents alike are excused from even trying to make any substantive material difference in the lives of what more optimistic left-wing political candidates until recently called “the many.”

The right has skillfully exploited this dynamic. Pronouncing that “this analysis ignores the question of class” has become an effective way of deflecting any complaint of inequality: No, there is no white supremacy, it’s just the frustration of the working class, etc. These may be cheap conservative talking points, but sometimes, “it’s not race, it’s class” is, in fact, the correct response to inequality, even if it sounds as unwoke as “sex, not gender.” But having dropped the ball, the contemporary left not infrequently regards such appeals to class with outright hostility. Truly, it takes some extreme form of class blindness to turn populism, the representation of the interests of ordinary people, into a pejorative.

Leftist antipathy for broad swaths of the working class has redounded to the benefit of right-wing populists. Trump’s appeal to the coal miners of Pennsylvania in 2016 continues to puzzle the left as much as UK Conservatives’ breach of England’s electoral “red wall” in 2019. Not that right-populists delivered much amid a regressive economic climate: The miners’ jobs have already disappeared, and the pandemic wiped out the “Brexit dividend” that was going to return England’s post-industrial towns to glory.

The right electorate’s relationship to economic conditions is nonlinear. It remains to be seen if the right can cope with the post-class complexities of identity and values any better than the left. Will right-wing populism push its crusade against “woke capital” all the way to challenging capitalist exploitation as such? Did Steve Bannon’s call to reclaim “racist” “as a badge of honour” help Marine Le Pen’s working-class followers or her electoral prospects? The right’s marketable brand of working-class conservatism relies on culture-war identity mythologizing just as much as the liberal left’s.

Whatever values the working class can find for itself, they now arrive pre-vilified. Better, then, if these values could be neutralized and replaced with market-friendly alternatives. For decades, liberal institutions have been working to convert the working class into a professional-managerial army. The illusory promise of the mass expansion of education has created a whole new aspirational working class, one that is only doubly disappointed when it realizes that the ascent into the professional-managerial class is not only identity-destroying, but often remains inaccessible to them.

Yet both left and right wash their hands of the long-term destabilizing effect of the crumbling neoliberal culture on the working class. Conservative culture minister Nadine Dorries, herself brought up on the poverty line in working-class Liverpool, recently applauded the BBC’s new target of recruiting 25 percent of its staff from working-class backgrounds. The same Conservative government, on the other hand, has presided over cuts to higher education in the arts and humanities—a move that will inevitably shrink the working classes’ access to the conveyor belt of mobility through liberal education. But is there such a thing as a working-class media executive, any more than there are working-class academics? Even if the two Conservative policy moves appear to pull in opposite directions, both serve to undermine the very idea of the working class.

The delusion that motivates this thinking is that eventually, everyone will want to be middle class, even if that involves mass class treason. With the increasing proportion of wealth concentrated in the hands of the 1%, there should be plenty of room near the top. But even if the left’s proposal for social climbing up the progressive stack worked in principle, its practical outcome is to exhaust aspirants with oppression olympics before they reach a quarter of their GoFundMe targets. The right’s generic proposals of “jobs, jobs, jobs,” meanwhile, lack even the grandeur of Margaret Thatcher’s “right to buy” that turned the working class into a political asset class.

In the meantime, both the liberal and the conservative dream is that the “old” working class could either be offshored or completely infused with either side’s dominant cultural values. Despite the bipartisan consensus that serving the economic needs of workers left behind by globalization and the cultural turn is the key to electoral success, there is little evidence that mainstream parties will rebuild their political infrastructure in these constituencies.

What of the plentiful members of the liberal “elite,” locked in a spiral of downward mobility, driven by college debt, underemployment, and market topsy-turvy that cares as little for the dignity of HR managers as it does for that of agricultural labourers? McGowan points out that while the workers of the world may have nothing to lose but their chains in universalist solidarity, their administrative overlords risk losing their identity politics in the bargain. To expect a substantial chunk of the materially frustrated members of the liberal managerial class to give up identity politics without a fight—a fight they believe they are winning—is at best naïve.

Left universalism, in other words, won’t soon return to the stage.


This essay was originally published in Compact.

Stalking the Biennial Zone

This essay was commissioned by Maja Ćirić for the catalogue of refinerymonastery, the 2022 Biennial of Art in Pančevo.

Looking for the tower

A criminal, his alcoholic friend, his elderly father, and a prostitute speed down the highway in search of the Bell Tower that is rumoured to grant eternal happiness to those select few pilgrims who succeed in reaching. To be granted the gift, travellers must only contend with the journey whose destination may well be no more than hearsay, they also need to open their hearts and minds. What that means, precisely, nobody knows. For Sanya the killer, the first challenge in reaching the Tower is to maintain control of his SUV on the road while sharing a bottle of vodka with his passengers. 

The existence of the Bell Tower of Happiness is an open secret: Sanya knows of it from his criminal contacts, but everyone has heard a version of the myth. The Tower itself is not marked on official maps but the Zone in whose interior the Tower lies is easy to find by the checkpoints that surround it. The men in dishevelled military uniforms who guard the Zone’s perimeter take their assignment only half-seriously and do as much as attempt to dissuade the pilgrims from their quest. Can one truly stand in the way of another’s search for happiness and meaning? The only warning the guards issue to the travellers is that no one has ever returned from the interior to tell the tale. God bless and good luck.

The further the characters penetrate the Zone, the more barren and apocalyptic the landscape around them becomes. The countryside bears the scars of a war or of an industrial cataclysm. They proceed. Snow falls, the ground freezes. The roadside is spotted with abandoned cars and bodies of earlier pilgrims who failed in finding their fortune. They pass dilapidated buildings, they encounter wild animals. The musician’s father passes away in the night. Alisa shivers with cold and tears. The atmosphere is eery but not so eery as to be wholly alien to them. The Zone once knew the life they knew outside, in the metropolis. They proceed, resigned, yet determined.

Aleksey Balabanov, Me Too, 2012

This road trip is the plot of Aleksey Balabanov’s 2012 film Me Too  (that is ‘I, too, want happiness).[1]Aleksey Balabanov, Me Too, 2012, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2456536/. The characters are the down and out and the fallen and in that, they are for Balabanov nothing but ordinary. Sanya’s confidence may be broken after his latest criminal ruse has gone awry, Alisa may be running from an abusive pimp, the old man has little but death to look forward to, while Oleg barely made it out of hospital. They are filled with submission more than with hope and their search for happiness is more a biological imperative than a rational choice. In a world in which the reproduction of desire is relentless, what else is there to be done? it is almost a wonder that many more are not trying to reach the Tower.

The art biennial – if you forgive my already bursting the bubble of this thin metaphor, the first of many in this text – has long been a site of pilgrimage much like the Zone. Its existence is no secret: the grandmother of all biennials, La Biennale di Venezia, was founded in 1895 as a publicity initiative for both the city and the art on display. Today, there are over 300 biennials or triennials in cities large and small,[2]Shwetal A Patel, Sunil Manghani, and Robert E. D’Souza D’Souza, ‘Extracts from How to Biennale! (The Manual)’, On Curating, 2018, https://www.on-curating.org/issue-39-reader/introduction.html#.YitRmy-l1B0. some are metropolitan, some peripheric, others nomadic. The attractions in Venice or Pančevo are, in principle, open to all and anyone is welcome. But just as with the Tower, not everyone gets to partake in them in the same way or to the same end. Like any art form, the biennial has its cognoscenti, its guests of honour, and its critics. The biennial also has its weekend visitors just intrigued by the novelty. And because biennials often adopt and adapt urban infrastructures – schools, warehouses, civic halls, factories, or even churches – to serve as their temporary museums and galleries, many idle passers-by enter the biennial Zone unwittingly, too. These pilgrims have not been initiated in the true meaning of the Tower.

In Roadside Picnic, the novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky[3]Arkady N Strugatsky and Boris N Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic, trans. Antonina W. Bouis (London: Gollancz, 1978). on which Me Too is loosely based, zones were created through an act of extra-terrestrial visitation. We do not know what processes formed them, but rumours of their unexplainable and magical properties abound. If the art biennial is the zone, it is because the biennial is the conglomeration of influences, ideas, productions, manifestations, arrangements, and political and economic imperatives that act on and with the host city in spatially and temporally limited staccato. The biennial injects the city with intellectual energy and with capital in ways that are by design extra-territorial.[4]It should be said that some biennials have been making concerted efforts to become embedded in their cities through year-round interventions, commissioning of permanent public artworks, or community programming aimed at the local population rather … see more The biennial turns the city into the zone: it brings with it the industry, the commerce, and the thought of art without ever becoming synonymous with the city itself. That’s the promise, anyhow.

The biennial can thus be a space of liberation – a temporary autonomous zone, to borrow a phrase from Hakim Bey[5]Hakim Bey, T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism, New Autonomy Series (Autonomedia, 1991). – in which the limitations of spatial and formal procedures can be overcome by subverting the flows of information, production, and consumption. The biennial, just like the zone, draws a crowd because it carries the potential for the unexpected and the unexplained to occur. Much has been said and written about the inner workings of the art biennial as a force that has perfected the creation of zones. Yet for all this research, the precise mechanisms by which the biennial can bring its visitors ‘happiness’ remains about as mysterious as the extra-terrestrial visitation that created the Strugatskys’ zones. The draw of the zone is that events in it have the potential to bypass human reason and to make extraordinary demands of the visitors’ senses. In Roadside Picnic, the source of this potential is the extra-terrestrial. If the biennial has similar potential, the source of it must be art.

The art of happiness

If the zone is the biennial, what is Tower? What is Happiness? The biennial is a space in which art is shown, appraised, exchanged, and consumed. The biennial is the space in which art could do all the things that we like to believe that art can do: to deliver us from our daily concerns, to transcend the limits of our imaginations, to inspire us, to give us hope. Art, in Bablanov’s phrase, could be the elusive source of happiness.

Art could be all those things. But often, it isn’t. 

Back in Balabanov’s Zone, the Bell Tower of Happiness stands among the ruins of an ancient church, alone in the middle of a boundless, featureless, frozen plain. The bodies strewn across the landscape all face away from the Tower and it is clear that for those who fail to commune with whatever supernatural force the Tower is a conduit to, returning to the world outside is not an option. 

Alisa and Sanya, the two of our protagonists who are still on the road, cannot know whether the Tower is in fact a cruel joke and whether it ever granted their wish to anyone. By the time they entered the Zone, it was already too late to harbour any doubts. Would their pilgrimage be rewarded? By the end of the film (excuse the spoiler), only one of them is granted the transcendental passage into the next world they came in search of. Are one in five odds worth the risk?

Aleksey Balabanov, Me Too, 2012

I may have already tested your tolerance of metaphors here. Me Too could hardly be more allegorical, either. The Tower, marking the site of an abandoned monastery (or a parish church, but you’ll go along with me here) is no less the embassy of a god now than it was before the visitation that turned the Zone into a wasteland. Facing it, Alisa is the archetypal candidate for redemption, a sinner by circumstance more than by lack of faith. Sanya is the wayward son. Balabanov himself makes a cameo in the film that turns out to have been his last and takes on the role of a filmmaker. A filmmaker who dies. Me Too is the story of the oldest story in the world, that of man’s search for meaning in a world in which the infrastructures of life no longer provide lasting comfort. There’s a reason that we keep telling this story: all that we know of those who found happiness or of those who perished seeking it is art. There is no evidence-based research, there is no sure-fire method for maximising the chances of success. 

While Balabanov rests his own and his characters’ hopes on transcendence – the notion that salvation must be found outside the bounds of human experience – Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker,[6]Andrei Tarkovsky, Stalker, 1979. the better-known adaptation of the Strugatskys’ novel, finds revelation in immanence. In Stalker, the Zone is at once the unknown and the worldly and it is itself the deliverance. The key to truth and the fulfilment of desire is not located in the centre of the Zone but is instead omnipresent in all its fabric, prime to be extracted by seekers. The task, however, is not without its difficulties and visitors are advised to seek the help of stalkers, priestly guides who have learnt to navigate the pitfalls and traps of a world that resembles the external in an only illusory way. 

In Tarkovsky, the title stalker leads the Writer and the Professor into the zone. These characters are more likely to be associated with the search for truth in the high culture of an art biennial than Balabanov’s criminals and prostitutes. The zone bears an uncanny resemblance to the city and its industrial zones over which machinery of indeterminate purpose towers. It is only by the lack of billowing smoke or noise that one notes the zone’s inactivity. Entering the area in search of absolution is risky but not so as to be the course of last resort.

Everything is art and art is everywhere

But I forget about art again. Who, or what is the immanent supernatural of the Zone? Who is art’s stalker? Does a visit to a biennial carry even the vaguest promise of communion with the truth? The correspondence between the biennial and the art within it is as much a matter of composition as it was for Balabanov and Tarkovsky. Balabanov comes close to revealing his divine source of transcendence but because he (in life or in his cameo in Me Too) is not one of the lucky ones who are granted happiness, he is unable to go beyond the strictly human aesthetic experience of observing Alisa’s ascension into the heavens. For Tarkovsky, the very search for the ultimate is the ultimate itself and he treats every stone and grain of sand in the Zone as though it held equal potential for an encounter with truth. Where for Balabanov there is only one work of art, for Tarkovsky, art is in everything and everything holds the potential to be art. At the Tower, Alissa must be a special kind of a soul to find god. In the immanent, all that the Writer and the Professor need to do is to immerse themselves in the potential of the zone. The same decisions shape the biennial zone: is art suspended in it as though aerosolised in the atmosphere or does it manifest at a series of singularities?

The very tension between the transcendent and immanent potentials in the experience of culture is at the heart of the questions that philosophers, critics, and artists (if not theologians) have asked of art for millennia. What does it take for art to be the kind of art that leads us towards the form of truth that withstands the march of time? Is art’s truth always to be constructed in its contingent relationships with artefacts beyond the zone? The art world’s workaround to the reductive binary of this question has been to rely on a cast of stalkers. My metaphor may jar a little here because artists, curators, and art world officials all have a degree of claim to being the stalkers who can bring lay supplicants closer to the promise of a truth that is art. But let me let everything be a metaphor for everything for a moment. Artists, on occasion, have believed that they alone commune directly with some divine. Museum trustees have all been called on to speak about the transcendental potential of art. Curators consider their audiences’ movements in the zone as though on a plane of immanence. Everyone could have been a stalker.

Aleksey Balabanov, Me Too, 2012

And there is no shortage of seekers ready to cross into the zone – the Venice Biennale, for example, received nearly 600’000 visitors in 2019. Many more will buy package holiday tickets to events in Bangkok, the Antarctic (!), Havana, or Gwangju. Many more still may seek out the zones independently and in so doing they may find opportunities to live out their versions of the Stalker experience. Often, the primary effect of such excursions is a headache induced by the sensory overload that occurs when the senses can’t tell the zone and the art apart anymore. Taking seriously my contention that Tarkovsky’s zone is the Deleuzian plane of immanence,[7]G Deleuze and F Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, European Perspectives: A Series in Social Thought and Cultural Criticism (Columbia University Press, 1996), pt. 1.2. we must consider the interactions between the elements of the zone, art among them. In their recent book Investigative Aesthetics, Matthew Fuller and Eyal Weizman[8]Matthew Fuller and Eyal Weizman, Investigative Aesthetics: Conflicts and Commons in the Politics of Truth (Brooklyn: Verso Books, 2021). coin the term hyperaesthetics to describe the situation in which every part of an environment becomes a receptor of an event (or ongoing events), let alone a potentially active actor itself. Fuller and Weizman’s solution to the cacophony is positivists[9]Weizman has disputed the characterisation of his work as positivist, a claim I critique elsewhere. and computational, an approach that is not only impractically challenging but also precludes the existence of art or god.

No wonder then that the Strugatskys, Tarkovsky, and Balabanov preferred to portray their zones as quiet and hovering at the edge of the world. The picnic in Roadside Picnic refers to the urban dweller’s penchant for weekend escapes into nature, except that here, the stalker guides his punters into the zone of exclusion rather than the forest. Our love for unsettling environments and ghosts of civilisation is clear from the preponderance of Instagram accounts that forever reproduce the strange charms of Chernobyl’s Pripyat or the spectral appearance of the abandoned military sea forts on the Thames.

Even in England, a country where most land is private, enclosed, and in which every wasteland quickly attracts the attention of property speculators, it is possible to reconstruct the plot of Stalker in near-perfect happenstance. All one needs is a weekend walking trip from the village of Rye to the fishing hamlet of Dungeness, a stretch of no more than twelve miles on the southern coast between them. If one is lucky, the path involves crossing through an expansive shingle beach and the country’s only desert littered with an untold weight of sea plastics, hurrying across an active military shooting range complete with burnt-out tanks, bunkers, and spent shells, trespassing onto the grounds of a nuclear power plant, encountering a crazed stray dog (the clincher in this metaphor since in Stalker a dog emerges from one of the character’s subconsciousness into reality). At the destination might be just in time to see the artist Derek Jarman’s seaside cottage by the headlights of a passing patrol car.

Dungeness, England. Photo: James Sherwood-Rogers

That the biennial reproduces that charged atmosphere of the power plant is partly a matter of form and partly the weekend trippers’ demand for spectacle. Biennials favour site-specific installations and expansive productions that would not easily fit in museums or homes. Because of their temporary nature, they tend to encourage artists to be bolder in their work than they may be within the confines of the studio. Biennials also favour novelty and are where ‘advances’, if such a crass term can be used of art practice, are showcased and evaluated.

Monastery, refinery

And what then of our encounter with art in the biennial zone? For whom does art’s bell toll? Do the zones of Venice of Pančevo recreate the temporary autonomy in which art can become what it once promised? If I stretch my metaphor to near breaking point and draw a direct line between art and the church tower in Balabanov’s film and between the Zone and the industrial smokestack that emanates an indescribable but unavoidable energy, Pančevo offers a set of uncomfortable hints and – finally – a pay-off to my belaboured parallels. 

The monastery in Vojlovica, built and restored many times since its foundation in the 14th century, was once at the centre of a community’s hopes for transcending their earthly limitations. In it, a cast of holy men devoted themselves to contemplation in communion with god. Today, the monastery is dwarfed by an oil refinery that has come to surround it and which employs many more thousands of workers than the monastery could ever attract worshippers. The petrochemical industrial colossus is at once the ghost and the alien of the Zone and the living embodiment of everything that our city has come to stand for. The refinery partakes in the transubstantiation of oil from one form into another and its metabolic labours are as intricately and imperceptibly arranged as the movements and machinations of the city dwellers at large.

The refinery in Pančevo. Photo: NIS ad/Wikimedia Commons

The refinery, however, is a different kind of zone. Its logic is not that of the Zone whose idleness becomes the plane of immanence from which truths can be written. Instead, the industrial zone risks becoming a free zone, deceptively so named because it is the very opposite of an autonomous zone. Agents in the free economic zone can rewrite protocols and codes but they do this entirely and solely to their own advantage, unencumbered by the prying eyes of regulatory devices or customs. The design critic and theorist Keller Easterling describes the free zone as a highly contagious and globalized urban form,[10]Keller Easterling, ‘Zone: The Spatial Softwares of Extrastatecraft’, Places Journal, 10 June 2012, https://doi.org/10.22269/120610. a type of capital infrastructure in which all forms of exchange are permitted but to which access is strictly restricted. In the free zone, it is capital and not thought that can assume the shape it wishes. Should it be a surprise that the free port is the preferred space for storing the most valuable of the world’s art, away from the prying eyes of stalkers, curators, or tax inspectors?

Illusions of freedom

The free zone’s offer of freedom is not extended to everyone equally and its ideals spread most rapidly under the guise of art. Condemning this kind of freedom outright is of no help, however, because the monastery (here, standing in for the museum, a church for the 21st century) and the refinery (the city and its capital flows) are everywhere. In Pančevo, the monastery and the refinery share office space and, no doubt, some visitors. The church may have lost some of its primacy over the lives of city dwellers, just as the museum has ceded ground to other forms of cultural propagation and control, but the monastery remains not despite the refinery but in part thanks to it. In Pančevo, the refinery operator owns the ground on which the monastery stands and part of the rent it collects is in the form of bonds of protection (These bonds, alas, proved to be ineffective and the refinery was subject to bombing by NATO forces in 1999).[11]William Booth, ‘NATO Bombs Left a Toxic Slough’, Washington Post, 21 July 1999, https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/inatl/longterm/balkans/stories/serbia072199.htm. Likewise, the monastery draws on the refinery: even the promotional YouTube video[12]light2tube, Vojlovica – Monastery in the Strangest Place in the World, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNgC91BZz7I. for the church boasts that it stands in the strangest place in the world, a location that amplifies whatever aura the pursuit of gods still has. The transcendent monastery and the immanent refinery rely on each other in a symbiotic relationship that validates the claims of each to being an inalienable part of the truth. Without the refinery, there’s no god. Without the monastery, there’s no oil.

The monastery in Vollovica, “the strangest place in the world”.

Sometimes, such a relationship can be encapsulated in the single instance of the museum, for example, in the numerous contemporary art galleries built in disused power plants (London’s Tate Modern), factories (Brussels’ WIELS), or military infrastructures (the Estonian National Museum in Tatru ). The art biennial has likewise enjoyed the slippery relationship between the spiritual and the industrial; Liverpool Biennial’s history, for example, is explicitly linked to efforts of civic regeneration and gentrification under whose logic every factory is by fiat a church. The more industrial and expansive the zone, the more self-evident the need for the museum.

Oil remains a commodity capable of determining the fates and cultural alignment of millions. It does so as much through the order and progress that it helps to bring but also by the entropic destruction that it leaves in its path. The revolutionary nature of the industrial revolution may well stand in question[13]Emmet Penney, ‘Did the Industrial Revolution Even Happen? Ft. John Constable’, Ex.Haust, accessed 8 March 2022, https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/ex-haust/id1530752649?i=1000552662812. but the industrial ruins of the 20th century would have already been visible to the Strugatskys in the 1970s. Why would today’s information revolution be any different? The flows of oil and gas contend with the flows of information and as I write, the internet standards organisation ICANN is mulling over a demand to bar Russia from accessing the network[14]Noah Shachtman and Kat Bouza, ‘Exclusive: Ukraine Pushes to Unplug Russia From the Internet’, Rolling Stone (blog), 1 March 2022, … see more while gas and oil continue to move unabated. With technical evolution comes control and the illusion of precision.

The zone without the city

Today’s technologies gamble on the boundaries of the needs and desires of their users with far more purpose than the Strugatskys could have imagined. What are the conditions for creating a zone in a world that subsists on information? Multiple experiments have tried to answer this question and some bear the promise of being able to cater to mass audiences while ostensibly offering all the convenience and none of the risk that the stalkers feared. One of the priests of the meta-zone is Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook and prospective pioneer of the Metaverse with its Oculus virtual reality headset serving as a personal portal into a zone. With the aid of these devices and their algorithmic stalkers, anyone could emerge within a zone whenever and wherever they choose. 

And it would be a zone and not the zone because Meta’s multiverse may well turn out to be different for everyone who experiences it. For the Writer and the Professor, the meta-zone may appear as it did in Tarkovsky, with visions of industrial wastelands and high-pitched sound environments. For others, Zuckerberg’s zone may instead produce phantasmagorical visions in soft CGI renders from pay-to-play video games. The zone, or zones, may be populated by multiple avatar inhabitants and visitors may not know whether these are fellow human travellers of adversarial features of the zone itself.

Boring art in the Metaverse. Meta corporate presentation, 2021

There’s no art in the metaverse. Not yet, anyhow.

Will the zonal experiences that Meta proposes to be transcendental to the kinds of bleak existences that films like Ready Player One[15]Steven Spielberg, Ready Player One, 2018, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1677720/. predict in which virtual reality is the only escape left for humanity entrapped in the zone, free or otherwise? Before we concede control over the future of desires, it may be prudent to consider the role that art – yes, art – and artists could play in shaping the immanent domain of the multiverse and the aesthetic experiences within it.

The critic Dean Kissick observes that technologists do not appear to have any clear ideas of what their multiverse could be and for whom, let alone what it would look like.[16]Dean Kissick, ‘What Will Art Look Like in the Metaverse?’, The New York Times, 1 December 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/01/magazine/mark-zuckerberg-meta-art.html. There is no immediate use that the Metaverse plays in the flow of information. Instead, its aim might be to expand the interface between information and the human. How might a multiverse do that? Meta’s corporate promotional materials released in 2021 leave much to be desired,[17]Orit Gat, ‘The Boring Art of Zuckerberg’s Metaverse’, ArtReview (blog), 12 November 2021, https://artreview.com/the-boring-art-of-zuckerberg-metaverse/. offering glimpses of life in banal home interiors rendered in cheap textures and ‘augmented’ by tedious animated street art. Zuckerberg, for sure, is no stalker yet.

Who then? Does taking on the challenge of the virtual zone require a new kind of artist? The philosopher of art Grant Tavinor argues that virtual reality is as much a picturing medium as Renaissance cityscape painting was. In his recent book The Aesthetics of Virtual Reality,[18]Grant Tavinor, The Aesthetics of Virtual Reality, Routledge Research in Aesthetics (New York, NY: Routledge, 2022). Tavinor demonstrates that there is, in fact, formally nothing new to VR, nothing at least that would be impossibly challenging to artists. If artists can reclaim expertise over the aesthetic – that discipline that deals with both perception and the composition of visual realities – it will be down to them to design the zones of the future. 

But that troublesome term aesthetics does not proscribe an art filled with animated emoji any more than it demands that artists exploring virtual realities and multiverses confine themselves to exploring four-dimensional abstractions limited by the computational power of their tools. The question at stake is more complex and answers are likely to take as many forms as they ever have: what does it mean to sense in a world where a singularity can be conjured within reach with a few lines of code?

The fantasy of experience at the limits of the regulated realm of technology has long held an appeal even to sworn Luddites. The nuclear disaster at Chernobyl established the world’s most iconic IRL zone fifteen years after Roadside Picnic was written and this zone has attracted no end of attention and countless visitors. The fire at the power plant at Zaporizhzhya may yet create another zone. Thankfully, artists have been more restrained in their zonal drive. Video games like the 2007 production S.T.A.L.K.E.R.[19]Andrew Prokhorov and Anton Bolshakov, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (GSC Game World, 2007), https://store.steampowered.com/app/4500/STALKER_Shadow_of_Chernobyl/. based on Tarkovsky’s film merely simulate the apocalypse. Other initiatives establish autonomous zones in previously unoccupied lands: the 2020 edition of the Yerevan Biennial, for example, took place entirely on the dark web.[20]Clauton Schuster, ‘An Art Exhibition on the Dark Web Makes a Case for Internet Freedom’, Observer (blog), 31 October 2020, https://observer.com/2020/10/yerevan-biennial-dark-web-exhibition/. Such projects are still in their experimental stages. As they expand to explore the potential of art’s immanence, the relationship between the platform that supports them and their form will be key.

Back on the ground

But, again, what of the prospects for art in this multi-zone that plays out somewhere between reality and fiction? Returning to Balabanov’s adaptation of Roadside Picnic, our most contemporary, we are reminded that merely finding the Tower (or the museum, the biennial venue, or even the church) is no guarantee of finding happiness. As a strategy for the biennial, building towers seems a little foolhardy. Adapting Tarkovsky’s proposal for the mass market, on the other hand, risks turning the biennial into a space in which visitors browse for curiosities as though even the fabric of reality were part of the experience economy. 

Aleksey Balabanov, Me Too, 2012

Plenty of critiques have been levelled at the biennial and the process of ‘biennialisation’ of contemporary art that renders it inseparable from the zone.[21]For example, Ronald Kolb, Shwetal A Patel, and Dorothee Richter, eds., ‘Contemporary Art Biennials – Our Hegemonic Machines in Times of Emergency’, On Curating, no. 46 (June 2020), … see more For an alternative, we may want to return to the Strugatskys. In their version, the stalker Redick learns to aestheticize his senses to recognise the potential benefits and dangers of the zone’s myriad features. He returns to the zone time and again intending to bring aspects of it back into the outside world for examination and in pursuit of knowledge. This, as for Redick, is the challenge to the biennial zone visitor as much as for the multiverse dweller: to develop the same aesthetic alertness outside as inside. And for the biennial, the task is not to turn into a free zone from which no knowledge can ever escape.


Main image: Aleksey Balabanov, Me Too, 2012

Notes[+]

Value in Numbers

Post-truth narratives and the symbolic order of the value of art in crisis.

Few questions have received as much attention from art practitioners and critics as that of the value of art and culture to society. Philosophers since Plato have speculated that art is inseparable from human existence as key to emotional, educational, and societal wellbeing.[1]Eleonora Belfiore and Oliver Bennett, The Social Impact of the Arts: An Intellectual History, 2008 <https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230227774>. But how should we account for these functions? How should we measure their worth against other social phenomena and in relationship to the state as the medium of exchange of value? Despite thousands of years of debate and the existence of a whole academic discipline that supports it,[2]See, for example, ‘Centre for Cultural Value’ <https://www.culturalvalue.org.uk/> [accessed 23 September 2021]. there are few straightforward answers. 

In the past year, the arts have had to argue for their worth in competition with other industries while cut off from their usual platforms that made previous manifestations of cultural value potent: gallery shows and dance performances on Zoom didn’t carry their usual weight. Even so, what the arts have over many other imperilled industries is their monopoly on boundless creativity. Given the current urgent need to rebuild social bonds and repair fractured cultural values, and the earlier chance for the arts to rehearse similar messages in the post-2008 austerity regimes, we could have expected a campaign that once and for all proved that ‘only art can save us’. We could have expected a campaign that brought inspiration and reflection that the arts have delivered for thousands of years. We could have expected a cheesy, morale-boosting message. Or maybe even a concerted effort to reassert values such as unity or community pride. Any of these would have done. Instead, a series of arts campaigns in the UK obsessed with the economic and statistical value of culture, in an argument that inspired few and convinced fewer still. Given that British cultural policy has long been the trend-setter for many other European arts economies, this moment warrants some critical reflection.  

The end of civilisation as we know it

To understand the narratives which took centre ground in the current crisis, it is worth tracing the recent history of art’s relationship with the state. As recently as in the 1980s in the UK, the keyword was ‘subsidy’ and the value of ‘high’ culture went unquestioned. In an episode of the iconic BBC comedy Yes, Minister[3]Peter Whitmore, Antony Jay, and Jonathan Lynn, ‘The Middle-Class Rip-Off’, Yes, Minister (BBC, 1982). <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zl0aEz34A4o> the hapless secretary of state Jim Hacker had to decide between saving an art gallery and saving a football club in times of adversity. For the civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby, the very notion of comparing the two was sacrilege and could only lead to the end of civilisation. Opera is culture. Sports, irrelevant mercantilism.

Peter Whitmore, director, ‘The Middle-Class Rip-Off’, written by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, Yes, Minister (BBC, 1982)

Since this sketch was written, the language of public support has changed dramatically. Deregulated free-market capitalism heralded a language of conscious exploitation of the power of the arts to achieve instrumental social outcomes. Ideas of the transformative potential of the creative economy lurked in the background but no one was ready to call bluff on the tenuous links between the emergent social art practices of museums and galleries and the booming tech or video games industries. By the 2010s, the discourse moved further to ‘investment’ and Arts Council England proudly announced that ‘for every £1 that it invested in the arts, the private sector added a further £3.’

What artists thought of these frameworks seems to have depended on the amount of subsidy or investment. At the turn of the century, conditions were idyllic by today’s standards: the more use for art the state had, the more art workers the state would support. In the confused policy language and the lack of leadership from institutions, perhaps it wasn’t always clear that the subsidy and investment would eventually require a return and that when they did, such returns would likely have to come from excess labour. To confuse matters still, the art market epitomised by London’s Frieze art fair grew into its now nearly dominant strength, making it difficult for artists and their communities to understand how their creativity and labour translated into the logics of public and private markets. This situation is not without parallel in the knowledge-labour economies in which individuals are invited to ‘invest’ in their education or to form ‘partnerships’ with capital. Just like it’s almost impossible for an individual to understand the multiple meanings of value of their student loan, how can an artist navigate the multiple interests of the public £1 and the private £3 when neither reaches their pocket? 

Too big to fail

If the past twenty years were characterised by cultural institutions’ resistance to financialisation, art schools’ vocal denial of market logic, and artists’ qualified mistrust of the art market, the pandemic year revealed a curious narrative shift. Amid all the chaos and disaster of lockdown museum closures and furlough for the luckier art workers, a group of UK arts organisations and thousands of artists – perhaps dismayed by the relatively ungenerous level of Britain’s state support in comparison to that extended by France or Germany – came together to campaign for a public bailout and for a new round of public investments to support the industry’s recovery. Their message: #artisessential because “the arts and culture sector contributes £2.8 billion a year to the Treasury via taxation” and the “creative industries employs [sic] 2 million people.”[4]‘#ArtIsEssential’ (CVAN England, 2021) <https://www.artisessential.art> [accessed 1 June 2021]. Repeatedly, they reminded us that “the Creatives [sic] Industries contributed £116bn in GVA [gross value added] in 2019.”[5]‘Leading UK Contemporary Visual Arts Institutions and Art Schools Unite against Proposed Government Cuts to Arts Education’ (Contemporary Visual Arts Network, 2021).

‘#ArtIsEssential’ (CVAN England, 2021). artisessential.art

These numbers and livelihoods are far from trivial, but the messages themselves are riddled with errors, and not just in spelling. Where do the ‘arts’ end and the ‘creative industries’ begin? Most of the employment for which this campaign tried to take credit comes from the film, digital, and games industries, explicitly outside the purview of the campaign. The GVA figure repeated this confusion and according to Arts Council England’s already inflated data[6]Cebr, Contribution of the Arts and Culture Industry to the UK Economy: Report for Arts Council England (London, April 2019). overstated art’s economic contribution at least tenfold. Can we defend the value of museums and galleries by claiming credit for the economic worth of software programmers?

There are prosaic technical and statistical reasons for some of these errors,[7]Hasan Bakhshi, Measuring the Creative Economy: A Guide for Policymakers (Creative Industries Policy & Evidence Centre, 2020) <https://www.pec.ac.uk/discussion-papers/measuring-the-creative-economy-a-guide-for-policymakers> … see more but they hardly excuse the persistent and wilful misuse of ‘facts and figures’ by the arts industry. And the misuse is now a habit: a 2019 report for Arts Council England, for example, admitted to counting the value of culture in some bizarre ways, arriving at a headline figure of £22 billion GVA by counting not only the value of the culture produced and consumed plus the value of its supply chain but also the induced value that includes the rent and grocery bills paid by art workers. To an economist, such an estimate is nearly meaningless, suggesting that your local supermarket could equally include the Mamma Mia tickets bought by its employees in the tally of its economic worth and ask for public subsidy because vegetable retail supports cultural production. Accurate data isn’t impossible to obtain, either. By the time the debate on the value of arts and culture and their pandemic needs reached the UK Parliament,[8]John Woodhouse and Georgina Hutton, Covid-19 and the Arts and Culture Sectors, Briefing Paper (House of Commons Library, 25 February 2021).the numbers appeared more modest: arts and culture employ 226’000 people (not two million) and GVA stands at £10.6 billion, but this did not stand in the way of #artisessential lobbying Government with the £116 billion figure only weeks later.

Post-truth art

Who decided that this financial and statistical argument would serve the arts’ cause best? Do artists and arts organisations know that their numbers are incorrect? Do they understand what they’re talking about? How did they hope to convince bureaucrats of their case? Are they just comforted by the abstraction of impressive-sounding large numbers? And most damningly, why are they lying?

We have come to expect manipulation of statistics from politicians, exaggeration of budgets from bureaucrats, and empty promises of social value from corporations. Their counterfactual narration of reality may sit well in the shadow of Donald Trump and the low-gloss populism of global politics, but such post-truth demagoguery is demonstrably not the exclusive domain of the political right if the public art sector can repeat baseless claims without batting an eyelid. No, one in twenty UK adults isn’t an artist.[9]2 million employed in the creative industries out of the UK’s working age population of about 41 million. No, culture is not worth more economically than oil and gas combined.[10]A claim made by a theatre industry campaigner on Radio 4’s Today programme in September 2020. Don’t we have better arguments?

Cebr, Contribution of the Arts and Culture Industry to the UK Economy: Report for Arts Council England (London, April 2019).
Cebr, Contribution of the Arts and Culture Industry to the UK Economy: Report for Arts Council England (London, April 2019).
‘DCMS Sectors Economic Estimates 2018: GVA’ (Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, 2020).

Perhaps these numbers are ‘just’ numbers and ‘deep down’ we know that they are fictions. But if we get the stats so wrong and still rely on them to perform our collective politics, what else are we getting wrong? In his attempt to construct a political theory of the post-truth, Ignas Kalpokas argues that there is nothing ‘post-’ in post-truth: today’s arts are following the footsteps of generations that tried (and failed) to free themselves from the reigns of capital-t Truths and capital-r Reason of the Enlightenment.[11]Ignas Kalpokas, A Political Theory of Post-Truth (New York, NY: Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2018). The unfortunate side-effect may be that in thinking about the present condition as exceptional and beyond the reach of reason, we have lost the ability to deploy reason itself when we need it.

The proof for Kalpokas’ characterisation is that none of the floors in the argument mattered because the UK cultural sector secured an unprecedented bailout of £1.56 billion last year under the government’s Culture Recovery Fund. Even this has had its critics but the numbers proved themselves to be efficient storytellers, their sums large, the economic story compelling. The arts may think that they won this argument, more or less. It may be natural to try and forget all this and breathe a sigh of relief rather than quibble over who was right and who was wrong, let alone hurl accusations of hypocrisy at one’s own team.

Art simulating itself

Even if on this occasion the denial of fact displays the hallmarks of an effective tactic, leaving it unquestioned may have significant consequences. Never mind the hollow and unsustainable sense of security the industry leaders may have felt in their negotiations with politicians on this occasion, the outsourcing of the post-truth problem to the realm of the political right makes it all too easy to overlook the profound challenge in the way that artists and their organisations understand their value in society. How value is expressed has puzzled theorists since before Adam Smith. In as much as the arts can be read as market goods – Sir Humphrey Appleby’s take that they should be a purely public affair has little hold in 2021 – Marx’s notions of use-value and exchange-value have been sufficient in reflecting the utility that audiences derive from attending theatre performances, art markets prices fuelled by fabricated scarcity, and even the language of public ‘investment’. 

But what use is Marx when the aesthetic, ethical, epistemic, or instrumental arguments for the value of the arts have so effortlessly rolled into financial matrices, abandoning their earlier complex frameworks? The professional pessimist Jean Baudrillard observed that such a state emerges when society is organised around simulation rather than consumption.[12]Douglas Kellner, ‘Jean Baudrillard’, ed. by Edward N. Zalta, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 2020) <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2020/entries/baudrillard/> … see more Aesthetics can become a subject of commodity consumption, but this is less straightforward in the case of art’s ethical or epistemic features. What if the knowledge economy of the arts does not resonate in the ideas of commodity production? And what if the instrumental value of the arts becomes a matter of discourse, rather than of service-level agreements? When we have so deeply mixed in those dematerialised values of art practice that have little to do with price or utility into the financial tally, Marxian ideas of value collapse.

Baudrillard’s simulacra uncannily encompass the shift in the pandemic value narrative. Where once we had art, we now have an art producing machine. The value, or values, of the art that this machine produces are not related to their Marxian values. If the art machine says that it produces £116 billion in GVA, then it almost doesn’t matter whether it also produces any ethical or epistemic qualities. Eventually, the art machine no longer needs the languages used to describe values other than those easily digestible rubrics of pounds and pence. 

Other, less exalted commodities are subject to similar evolutions. A quantity of grain has an exchange value (its price) and a use-value (the value it has when turned into a food). But while grain is traded on in international markets, so is the simulation of grain. Financial derivatives such as grain futures are traded in the stock markets in a volume that far exceeds the volume of grain actually produced, exchanged, and consumed. Trading grain futures is based on symbolic value, not use value; grain futures are a simulation of grain. The same may be happening in art now. Neither the £116 nor the £10.6 billion that narrates art and artists has anything to do with the art produced or consumed: it is merely a financial instrument that simulates a real commodity trade (the opera tickets, artist fees, auction sales) that need never take place. 

This is a serious indictment and, in Baudrillard’s terms, a dead-end for art. We cannot merely blame the art market for this narrative failure, either. Contrary to our instinctive understanding of neoliberal capitalism, the simulation does not come about because art and culture have become completely commodified by the market logic that replaced state support. Certainly, plenty of art objects from Monet to KAWS hold their comfortable status as premium commodities traded in auction houses and stored in freeports; for them, Marx’s notions of exchange and value hold – they are free from the lure of simulation. But paradoxically, as most artists and their institutions have resisted thinking about their participatory art projects, non-profit galleries, or experimental installations in those same commercial ways, they have inadvertently given up their claim to the utility or exchangeability of their work. When in addition other notions of value collapse, as they did during the pandemic, post-truth manipulation may seem like the best of options.

For Baudrillard, the dichotomy between the luxury art object and the non-economic art practice would be evidence for his thesis: if the art industry resists commodification, it is because it has lost its connection to the very commodity that it represents. This matters because anything that we consume is a commodity and art does itself a disservice by denying this classification. If the arts have resisted thinking about the public value of their work in market terms, all they are left with is a false narrative of overabundance and symbolic value as a simulation.

Token aesthetics

In his writing on art, Baudrillard extended this scepticism to the aesthetic and pronounced the end of art as an inevitable consequence of the endless proliferation of artistic practices.  The recent rise of NFTs is a further indictment of art’s loss of confidence in its value and the explosion of this market during the pandemic when physical art lost access to exchange and utility is no coincidence. NFTs are the perfect containers of symbolic value: they present themselves to be free of utility, ethical, or epistemic claims and they bypass even the fundamental question of whether they are art or not by espousing an aesthetic that inspires little discourse. Even if NFT sales correspond to individual artworks, these works resist becoming commodities in the traditional sense by manufacturing scarcity just like the contemporary art before them did. Only they do so more efficiently: where speculation in the future value of physical art objects was subject to the obscuring behaviours of the traditional art market. NFTs are perfectly designed to become the basis of financial speculation as they are ready-made financial instruments, index funds designed to breed further simulated derivatives. When Christie’s staged the record-breaking sale of Beeple’s $69 million masterpiece, the lack of attention to any discernible qualities of the work was deafening because NFTs don’t even have the pretence of a cumbersome physical commodity behind them and therefore they need not be governed by the exchange value narratives of the traditional art market. 

EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS (Beeple, 2021)

While the arts industry remains broadly sceptical of animated GIFs, the one aspect of the NFT simulation that the mainstream cultural narrative has embodied unquestioningly is the unthinking optimism and hype of the crypto asset trade. As the value of Bitcoin relies in no small measure on millions of speculators blindly believing in it, so does the value of the art industry. In a world of simulation, isn’t it imperative to maintain that art and culture generate £116 billion in GVA? Is this our future worth?

Although Baudrillard’s vision of the role of art in the simulation is bleak, it reveals an opportunity for art and artist to break out of the simulacrum. Baudrillard jested that the contemporary world’s greatest achievement was not the commercialisation of anything and everything, but instead, it was the aestheticization of the whole world, that is turning it into images and symbols that become simulations of the formerly real thing.[13]Jean Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena, trans. by J Benedict (Verso, 1993). This meant that there was no role left for art because it could no longer subvert the simulation and because art relies on participating in the simulation for its existence.[14]Douglas Kellner, ‘Jean Baudrillard and Art’.

But have we indeed reached a point of aesthetic oversaturation in which the Instagram feed has taken over all attempts to mediate meaning? The experience of the past months suggests that art does not take its aesthetics nearly as seriously as it could. The same #artisessential campaign that made claims of the industry’s financial prowess chose to outsource the question of aesthetics to artists and the results were underwhelming, to say the least. Are frowning selfies and handmade banners all that we can do? Why haven’t we thrown ourselves into the making of inspiring images, gaze-arresting displays of aesthetic, social, or intellectual value? 

As long as some of these avenues remain underexplored, there may be a way to escape the still-incomplete simulation, and it lies in the renewal of aesthetic practices. Such evolution is always already taking place in the ever-changing landscape of art production but we must consider once more the balance of aesthetic, social, and market interests that fuel our work because straying too far into Baudrillardian territory could mean that we are left with nothing but hollow hashtag or GVA stories. If we succeed, it will be as artists, not as social workers or commodity traders. In the neon words of Stefan Brüggemann: to be political, it has to look nice. 

Another option whose radical potential is also poorly served by the post-truth turn to economic value accounts could be to invest in developing a broader value literacy in the art industry so that it can build new, convincing narratives. It may even be that when the narratives are brought back in line with their underlying realities, they can no longer reinforce the simulacra: a self-induced collapse predicted by the more benevolent strands of accelerationism. Until we take active control of our own ‘progress narrative’, help could perversely come from the politician or the bureaucrat who simply dismiss the arts’ economic arguments and forces our attention back on those values that we can maintain as a matter of our own realities.


This text first appeared in Arts of the Working Class in October 2021

Notes[+]

Review: The Class Ceiling

The Class Ceiling 
Why it Pays to be Privileged

Sam Friedman
Daniel Laurison

Published by Policy Press, 2020
ISBN 9781447336068

Class may be the ultimate English taboo. Not long ago, the Labour Government minister John Prescott’s television documentary[1]‘Prescott: The Class System And Me’ (2008). UK: BBC 2. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00fbc18/episodes/guide portrayed the UK as a country in which the very word was losing meaning in ways that should have troubled sociologists. In a memorable scene, Prescott interviewed a group of young unemployed people who refused to see themselves as ‘working class’ because, well, they did not work for a living. More recently, the report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities [2]Sewell, T. et al. (2021) Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities: The Report. was widely condemned in part for suggesting that a class-centric, socioeconomic lens may be appropriate in addressing disadvantages experienced by ethnic minorities.

The Class Ceiling is one of a range of works to appear in recent years that attempt to renew the focus on class and its continued hold on the uneven distributions of social and cultural capital in sites of economic and political power. Titles like the theoretically-driven Against Meritocracy,[3]Littler, J. (2017) Against Meritocracy: Culture, power and myths of mobility. Taylor & Francis. the politically-sited The Tyranny of Merit,[4]Sandel, M. J. (2020) The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? Penguin Books Limited. and the historical and activist Snakes and Ladders[5]Todd, S. (2021) Snakes and Ladders: The great British social mobility myth. Random House. all serve to undo the naively optimistic narratives of merit as the prevalent organising principle of society and labour that have characterised much of the past decades. 

Friedman and Laurison’s study centres on the material outcomes and professional experiences of individuals engaged in elite professions in relation to their class origins to test the promise of meritocracy that it’s not who, but what you know that matters. As it is not only equality of opportunity but also the chances of equal outcomes that are under investigation, the book’s key questions are ones of social mobility: how likely is it that an individual beginning their life in working-class or intermediate class circumstances may end up in occupations that make them a prosperous member of the professional or managerial classes? 

The book opens with the story of Mark, a successful TV executive who attributes his stellar ascent in the industry equally to hard work and his quintessentially privileged background (professional-class parents, private schooling and Oxford, networks built on family connections, etc.). Mark is the archetype against whom all the other protagonists in the book must compete: his stocks of social, economic, and cultural capitals are high. Even in the scantest analysis, the odds are heavily stacked against individuals of working-class origin who are almost half as likely to end up in working-class occupations as to transcend class boundaries into intermediate, managerial, or elite professions. This framing illustrates the authors’ fundamental belief that social mobility is the key route to economic emancipation (Friedman is a member of the Government’s Social Mobility Commission) which favours ascent towards the top of the labour market pyramid.

The authors select the occupation of an individual’s parents as a proxy for their class origin. Consequently, the detailed work draws on extensive analysis of data from the Labour Force Survey as it pertains to individuals employed in a range of elite professions (medicine, academia, law, senior corporate management, and finance, among others). This quantitative work is accompanied by analysis of 175 interviews with individuals working in the prestigious fields of television, accounting, architecture, and the acting profession presented in the book as a series of vignettes and case studies.

The Class Ceiling builds on the tools of its glass predecessor in defining a range of mechanisms by which discrimination operates. In the professional milieux which Friedman and Laurison describe, class disparities are already visible at the entry-level: that the children of doctors are 25 times more likely to take up medicine than any other profession means that they dominate the competitive field from the get-go. Education is not the ‘great leveller’ either: “those from working class backgrounds earn even less when they go to top universities” (p. 63). These predictions hold across many co-variables including sex, disability, or ethnicity, although Friedman and Laurison’s multidimensional observations show that in most matters, demographic differences alone do not explain observed disparities. The book thus makes a case for adding class origins as a key dimension of intersectional analysis.

The headline finding that working-class origin people earn on average £6400 (or 16%) less per year than their colleagues from privileged backgrounds in the same occupations is a depressing starting point, but one that should put an end to any belief in the meritocracy of the UK’s job marketplace. The statistical analysis is detailed enough to present some counterintuitive findings, however. While, for example, “socially mobile women face double discrimination on earnings” in elite industries overall (p. 50) and women are overrepresented in journalism (p. 42), working-class individuals overall enjoy an earrings advantage in that industry (p. 51). In a section of the book filled with indictments of prevalent attitudes to class, a discussion of whether and why journalism may be a haven for working-class women would have been welcome.

The book takes flight in the later chapters which take to task a range of phenomena that the authors observed in corporate settings. We meet the job applicant Martin, who is as qualified as his competitor Sophie but is of working-class origin and therefore not a good ‘fit’. We hear from executives who suggest that career progression is a matter of ‘confidence’. When Friedman and Laurison explore the qualities behind those terms, it becomes clear that they are intended to reinforce barriers while rendering them opaque. Head of department Nigel may suggest that in his organisation “you can be who you want to be”, but in the very same setting, success hinges on choosing the correct brand of trainers for Martha (p. 134). There is an element of chicken-and-egg in these accounts that mirrors the homophilic in- and out-group sorting mechanisms of all groups and therefore the interviews and case studies are particularly valuable. 

The authors’ siting of the research in elite professions is productive because it allows for a discussion of both the disadvantages faced by working- and intermediate class origin individuals and the privileges enjoyed by their professional class origin counterparts. There are, however, limitations to this approach which Friedman and Laurison acknowledge: this analysis tells us little about how the ‘long shadow’ of class origin operates elsewhere. A way of generalising the observation that it is the class origin that prevents working-class individuals from prospering in elite professions would be to deconstruct the understanding of employment in those elite occupations as universally synonymous with belonging to a professional class. 

While The Class Ceiling provides evidence that working-class origin individuals don’t often progress beyond the lowest paying employment on entering elite industries, further insight could be gained from a longitudinal analysis of the rise of those industries in the decades of mass deregulation. The thematically linked Culture is Bad for You, for example, demonstrates that in elite cultural occupations, the golden age of social mobility is at best a myth[6]Brook, O., O’Brien, D. and Taylor, M. (2020) Culture is bad for you: Inequality in the cultural and creative industries. chap. 7. Manchester University Press. and that the statistically evident gains of the class politics of the 1980s may have been the result of a shift in terminology and not in outcomes. An analysis of class barriers in evidence today, perhaps, should take account of the stark class-type differences between the CEOs and the administrators who both appear in the data trails as belonging to the same professional class. 

Ultimately, the scholarly value of the work lies in its rehabilitation of the multiple measures and meanings of class as distinct constituent components in an intersectional analysis of any group’s professional or social outcomes. Friedman and Laurison’s quantitative work is certainly impressive in its multidimensionality and its investment in critical and numerical complexity. The relationship of this data with the qualitative aspects of the research, however, may be far from stable: the oral accounts of class on which the work is based do not always match the statistical classifications. This poses a challenge to the project because how class is measured and how it is understood are not one and the same.

That the understanding and signalling of class or other identity attributes may become an obstacle to classical class analysis is already evident from Friedman and Laurison’s data in a subsequent paper Deflecting Privilege[7]Friedman, S., O’Brien, D. and McDonald, I. (2021) ‘Deflecting Privilege: Class Identity and the Intergenerational Self’, Sociology. doi: 10.1177/0038038520982225. that observes a range of middle-class origin individuals constructing accounts of class adversity and disadvantage. This phenomenon even predates the 1980s’ spirit of individualism heralded by Giddens or Bauman: the pioneering American artist Lorraine O’Grady, for example, recalls her successful Black middle-class peers feigning humble origins in the 1970s.[8]O’Grady, L. and Davis, B. (2021) ‘Lorraine O’Grady on the Social Castes of the Art World’, The Art Angle. ArtNet. https://artangle.libsyn.com/lorraine-ogrady-on-the-social-castes-of-the-art-world To echo her question: “what kind of class does that?”

How such considerations can be politically activated to form a convincing policy framework for ameliorating prevailing disparities remains an open question. For some, the classic Bourdieusian tools of sociology are beginning to fray in the era of identity politics and its intersectional demands[9]Heinich, N. (2007) Pourquoi Bourdieu? Gallimard (Le Débat). – the Sewell report comes to mind again. Slavoj Žižek[10]Žižek, S. (2016) What the Liberal Left Doesn’t Want to Hear. New York. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jvVs273-EKI has suggested that the same kind of deconstruction awaits class as is currently taking place with the gender binary. An entirely different political class narrative may be called for that transcends the boundaries of sociological understanding before returning to the discipline once again.


This is an Accepted Manuscript version of the following article, accepted for publication in Cultural Trends:
d’Alancaisez, P. (2021) ‘The Class Ceiling: Why It Pays to Be Privileged’, Cultural Trends, pp. 1–3. doi: 10.1080/09548963.2021.1950512

Notes[+]

Review: Deserting from the Culture Wars

book cover

Maria Hlavajova, Sven Lütticken (eds)
Bini Adamczak, Kader Attia, Rose Hammer, Tom Holert, Geert Lovink, Diana McCarty, Dan McQuillan, Johannes Paul Raether, Andreas Siekmann, Esmee Schoutens, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Jonas Staal

Published by MIT Press, 2020
ISBN 9780262362955

book cover

Cultural battles have been going on for decades: Chapman and Ciment’s encyclopaedia of manifestations of culture wars runs into some 1,200 pages. [1]Roger Chapman and James Ciment, Culture Wars in America: An Encyclopedia of Issues, Viewpoints, and Voices, 2nd edition, Routledge, New York, 2014 Nonetheless, the overtly partisan manner in which major events of the past few years have been represented and critiqued in the public sphere could lead one to understand that culture wars are a relatively new phenomenon in democratic politics. The election of Donald Trump or the Brexit referendum are habitually read as turning points that confirm a new and now seemingly unbridgeable social and political division.

How such rifts are represented in and created by culture itself has been the subject of lively debate. Deserting from the Culture Wars is an intervention in this fraught landscape that is not only timely but highly necessary. Maria Hlavajova’s foreword describes a landscape torn by ‘battles around civil rights, social and ecological justice, health equity, racial hierarchies, gender identities, and, to be sure, truth floods public discourse with a toxic brew of bewildering language, maximist slogans, manipulative rhetoric, inflammatory imagery, conspiracy theories, and militarized posturing’ (p 12, emphasis in the original). Sven Lütticken’s project ‘Deserting from the Culture Wars’, run with BAK (basis voor aktuele kunst) in Utrecht, weighs in on the discourse with a ‘training manual’ of contributions from the likes of Bini Adamczak, Diana McCarty, Jonas Staal, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Tom Holert, Geert Lovink and Dan McQuillan. The project’s manifesto is therefore alluring: it proposes a ‘tactical desertion’ of the culture wars in an attempt to find a way towards ‘being together otherwise’ and away from the battlefield.

Sven Lütticken, Performing Culture Otherwise

Lütticken’s opening Performing Culture Otherwise sets out his proposal for ‘desertion’, describing culture wars as a series of emergencies fabricated by conservative politics in the US since the 1980s. At the outset, Lütticken situates these events at the extreme far right of the antifascist–fascist axis, a position that enforces a binary reading of all phenomena. He suggests that the ‘left’ has developed a habit of responding to such cultural attacks in reactive, Pavlovian ways that are wholly inadequate. Since by the 1990s a true Marxist alternative to neoliberalism seemed implausible, the ‘Cultural Marxism’ that replaced it was not a considered defence but, in fact, a caricature bogeyman invented by the ‘right’ in pursuit of further ideological gains (p 24). When it becomes apparent that the rules of engagement are determined by the aggressor and that the object of the battle is not only culture but survival itself, Lütticken suggests, why not look for ways to avoid this conflict altogether?

To imagine how this might be possible, Lütticken points out that culture wars are waged between cultures but not for them. Contrary to the Marxist conception of culture power struggle rendered visible, the ‘right’ culture is the culture of the majority (white, Christian) collectivism. That conservative culture is necessarily at odds with the superstructures of the media and academia understood to have been hijacked by the Cultural Marxist enemy. Lütticken cites Jordan Peterson’s vocal opposition to the neo-Marxist tendencies of the academy as skilful exploitation of the shortcomings of Jürgen Habermas’s universalist conception of democracy which inevitably leads to a strengthening of exclusionary cultures.

If Lütticken’s thesis is that warfare-by-culture is the preserve of fascism, then this unravels in his consideration of historical avant-garde artistic movements. Through Herbert Marcuse’s analysis of the social changes leading up to the French strikes of 1968, Lütticken concludes that culture was no longer an arena in which struggles were represented, but a bona fide site of conflict. The logical necessity which the text overlooks is that such war-like engagement requires at least two protagonists, although Lütticken describes the damage that the artist group Situationist International suffered in becoming a ‘proper’ political avant-garde (rather than a ‘merely’ artistic one), perhaps as an illustration of the unfairly configured battlefield (p 33).

Lütticken’s proposal is ultimately not one of reckless desertion. In contrast with Peter Osborne’s proposal for withdrawal in pursuit of autonomy, Lütticken wants to embed solidarity in a co-ordinated mass exodus. He points to the successes of ‘left’ cultural collectivisms that led to the UK’s Tate galleries severing their relationship with BP, or to William Kanders’ resignation from the board of New York’s Whitney Museum. These are, of course, commendable, although Lütticken’s reading of actions and phenomena through the prism of antifascism may render him less sensitive to the non-cultural forces at play. In what reads like a hot-take, Lütticken appears to compare MoMA’s sacking of its freelance educators in the first stages of the pandemic with the same museum’s call for equity and justice after the killing of George Floyd. Lütticken acknowledges that the question of how ‘to forge ties of solidarity and build autonomy’ is crucial, but it is not clear that the apparatus of withdrawal inherited from Osborne, and twinned with an antifascist orientation, is adequate ‘in an economy designed to either prevent it or instrumentalize it’ (p 38).

Images from the book launch. Photo: BAK

This desire for desertion, as well as Lütticken’s insistence that a strict antifascist critique is its best chance of success, is maintained through much of the volume. This is not surprising given that Deserting from the Culture Wars resulted from a long-term collaborative project convened by Lütticken. The myopic inflexibility of these parameters, however, does little to enhance the other contributions in the volume, preventing them from engaging with a wider gamut of issues and artefacts of the culture wars.

Tom Holert, Transfixing the Fascist Episteme

Tom Holert’s contribution, Transfixing the Fascist Episteme, focuses on the formal characteristics of knowledge as a way to understand pervasive fascist cultural subterfuge. Holert’s masterful analysis of what he calls the epistemisation of culture will be familiar to readers of Third Text Online, [2]see Christoph Chwatal’s review of Tom Holert’s Knowledge Beside Itself: Contemporary Art’s Epistemic Politics (Sternberg Press, 2020), Third Text Online, 12 October 2020 and his examination of culture’s vulnerability to right-wing ideas is compelling. In the waning shadow of Marxism, Holert argues, the plurality of knowledge narratives on offer has served to legitimise the cultural claims of fascist movements such as Alternative für Deutschland, whose rhetoric of the state, nature or the people owes much to the epistemological work of the French extremist philosopher Alain de Benoist.

Holert observes the ‘right’s’ skilful appropriation of the lessons of 1968, notably the shift of its above-the-surface politics away from facts to emotion. The emergence of truthiness (the term coined by the satirist Stephen Colbert to describe the kind of truth that is felt rather than known) as a mode of political discourse may appear in line with the Foucauldian turn against the rigid Modernist episteme, and is, in fact, portrayed as emancipatory. However, as long as the memefied episteme is underpinned by fascist mechanisms like algorithmic message distribution, Holert suggests, it can only serve to corrode the liberal consensus.

Holert remains aware of the practical difficulties of such a critical position, given that not all fascist knowledge is simply false (Adorno) and that truths are inherently arbitrary in nature (Arendt). The defining feature of a fascist episteme, therefore, is that it deploys truth out of its interpretative context in the service of untruth. Here, Holert nods to the possibility of applying such epistemic analysis to a broader spectrum of cultural claims than Lütticken’s project set out to; however, the antifascist orientation of the ‘manual’ prevents him from addressing these explicitly.

Referring to the philosopher Alexander Koyré, Holert suggests that what characterises fascist epistemology is a relentlessly goal-oriented reason, the type of instrumental reason that, according to Max Horkheimer, strategically corrupts practical reason (p 64). To avoid this issue, Holert calls on the critic Keller Easterling to observe that ideological declarations are no longer reliable indicators because they are easily corruptible. Since ‘a simplistic disavowal of the fascist episteme’s violence’ is not enough, Holert suggests that a culture wars deserter should engage ‘in the production of a set of critical skills and aesthetic language that would enable actual transfixing’ (p 70). While part of the ‘training manual’ stops short of offering a lesson in practical epistemology, Holert’s text closes with some optimistic examples of artistic practices (Forensic Architecture, among others) that in his view operate within robust and critically effective epistemes.

Holert’s analysis is damning because it points to no easy solution. If the truth claims based in antifascist epistemic alternatives (for example, in the rejection of ‘evidence’ characteristic of many emancipatory movements) can no longer be taken at face value, which epistemic paradigm should they be evaluated in? With this in mind, the volume’s programmatic refusal to engage with any of the artefacts of the ‘left’s’ culture seems like an own goal.

Jonas Staal, Contagion Propaganda

Jonas Staal’s Contagion Propagations expands the perspective laid out in his recent analysis of contemporary propaganda art.[3]See Christoph Chwatal’s review of Jonas Staal, Propaganda Art in the 21st Century (The MIT Press, 2019), Third Text Online, 16 January 2020 In what, at points, reads like a political op-ed, Staal exposes the Covid-19 outbreak as an inevitable outcome of capitalism’s globalised excesses. He sees the pandemic as a profoundly partisan affair that serves the capitalist economy and ideology by design and merely highlights pre-existing injustices that are under normal conditions tolerable through the production of narratives of what Herman and Chomsky refer to as ‘unworthy victims’ (p 128).

Staal traces the pandemic front lines to an earlier conflict between ‘ultranationalist and hard right parties and… the globalist capitalist elite’ (p 129). Given the anger that clouds the text and which seems more suited to a rally speech than a critical essay, this reads as one step in political rhetoric too many, until Staal deploys his well-developed toolkit of propaganda analysis on an oeuvre of mainstream films such as Contagion (2011), which models the SARS epidemic, and television series such as Outbreak (1995) that features the Ebola crisis. Such propaganda artefacts that portray the virus threat as a ‘foreign agent’, Staal argues, also lay the ground for an ideological and cultural war for the eco-fascist myth of overpopulation.

Staal’s text concludes with a surprisingly detailed and practical Organizational Art Training Manual, a blueprint for artist-driven propaganda creation that includes instructions such as ‘identify a common objective for change’ and ‘consider the means of representation’. As welcome as this intervention is, it points to Staal’s belief that artists should take an active role in the culture wars, rather than desert them.


At this point, the willful blindness of Lütticken’s project to the very possibility that the culture wars are bilateral is visibly at odds with Staal’s proposal. The enforced reading of culture wars as a solely fascist phenomenon strips Staal’s propaganda artists of autonomy and surrenders them to that Pavlovian stimulus. Lütticken’s parameters explicitly forbid engagement with social justice warrior culture – which is regrettable, because Staal’s framework could have lent itself to a more productive understanding of the tools and techniques already available to the would-be culture war deserter, particularly in the light of the substantial damage that the ‘left’s’ internal culture wars are already inflicting on the antifascist cause. If the key lesson of Staal’s propaganda studies is that ‘it’s all propaganda’, why not examine the propagandas of ‘woke’ or ‘cancel’ cultures, for example, to ensure that they remain loyal to their stated antifascist cause?

While one can only guess at the reasons for such reluctance to engage with the ‘left’s’ internal cultural inconsistencies (or, in Lütticken’s opening words, ‘the fascism in all of us’), this decision has profound practical implications. For example, it renders unproductive Staal’s astute analysis of Steve Bannon’s cultural propaganda war so effectively deployed elsewhere. More importantly, where the project sees the culture of culture wars as a series of artefacts appropriated by fascism, it fails to account for the culturally-generative role of artists and cultural institutions in the production of cultures and countercultures.

Christopher Newfeld’s account of the twentieth century culture wars points to a more economic than cultural effort to dismantle the liberal public sphere.[4] See Christopher Newfield, Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, 2008 Contending with the significant gains that the cultural institutions and the ‘far right’ have independently made in the twenty-first century, what could have been worthy of consideration here is the stark asymmetry of resources harnessed by the parties. While the ‘right’ boasts easily memorable messages, masterful isolate-and-control tactics and an army of teenage 4chan ideologues,[5]4chan is an infamous social network, home to armies of anonymous trolls and source of most of the internet’s memes the ‘left’ could claim extensive networks of artists, activists and institutional infrastructures, and a wide-ranging theoretical apparatus. Is Lütticken’s proposal, in stark contrast with Holert’s compelling recommendation, that artists and institutions like BAK withdraw from cultural production and engage in as-yet unspecified activities, rendering themselves deaf to the fascist gunfire? It is clear what the desertion is from, but to where?


At the risk of labouring the metaphor, one would do well to remember that in warfare, deserters are usually punished by their own side. If, in the words of Steve Bannon’s ally, the populist ideologue Andrew Breitbart, ‘politics is downstream from culture’, turning away from the culture wars is easier said than done. In the light of the recent tectonic shifts brought about by cultural progressivism’s insistent antifascist work (for example, the school curriculum reforms in the US that explicitly root mathematics instruction in ethnic essentialism in the name of emancipation, or the empirically counterproductive extreme readings of critical theories by those such as Robin DiAngelo), culture’s retreat would be at best lazy and irresponsible.

Planet of the Humans, film still

The market of culturalised politics is, in fact, alive and well. An example of the selective embrace or rejection of such market freedoms comes in Staal’s analysis of Michael Moore’s documentary Planet of the Humans, directed by Jeff Gibbs (2019). Moore, until now almost universally applauded by progressives for his popular activist journalism, in the recent film took the false step of condemning not only ‘big oil’ and ‘capitalism’ for the inevitable ecological disaster but all humans for their naïve desire for easy solutions. Moore’s film is pessimistic and mistrustful of good news, enough so for Staal to label him an eco-fascist. Surprisingly, Staal’s rebuttal relies on undermining Moore’s data. Was Moore’s evidence robust in films like Bowling for Columbine(2002) because the motives were antifascist, but became corrupted two decades on? To be crude: if Moore can this easily be rendered a fascist, what fundamental characteristic of the ‘left’s’ own antifascist culture safeguards it from engaging in fascist behaviours? Either it is the antifascist lens that is wholly critically unproductive, or it is its selective application to phenomena that is prejudged as hostile and means it is hypocritical.

The fundamental challenge to the limited scope of Lütticken’s proposal is that the antifascist orientation fails to satisfy the challenge posed by Easterling. That is to say that the volume’s repeated assertions of antifascist intent cannot be read as sufficient, or that the rigour with which the volume classifies all phenomena as either fascist or antifascist is in itself a by-product of a culture war. Bini Adamczak’s contribution is an example here, even if it is perhaps the volume’s most defined proposal for an alternative cultural future. Adamczak is a passionate proponent of communism,[6] See, for example, Bini Adamczak, Communism for Kids, Jacob Blumenfeld and Sophie Lewis, trans, The MIT Press, 2017 – without doubt an artefact of a culture war and as much as her text is eloquent, the targets of its critique are rather predictable and their relationship to culture left underexplored.

One possible escape from this bind comes from Slavoj Žižek, whose infamous pronouncement that everything is ideology uncannily mirrors Staal’s. Žižek is keenly aware that under the conditions of ever-present ideological warfare, even oppression is adorned with the hallmarks of freedom, and that in turn makes him sceptical of any freedom-making claims. Žižek’s favourite dialectician, G W F Hegel, even suggests that ‘Evil resides in the very gaze which perceives Evil all around itself’.[7]Hegel, cited in Slavoj Žižek, ‘Against an Ideology of Human Rights’, in Displacement, Asylum, Migration: The Oxford Amnesty Lectures 2004, K E Tunstall, ed, Oxford University Press, 2006, pp 56–86 Žižek’s critique is a pragmatic one and its tone seems apt as a response to that part of Lütticken’s proposal that purports to extend practical tools towards building antifascist cultural relationships because Lütticken’s project is, in fact, inherently divisive by its desire to split the world into fascists and antifascists. Žižek has made himself unpopular by pointing out this very propensity of emancipatory projects to fall foul of their ideological logics with a ‘puritanical zeal’. Perversely, while Žižek is a rare survivor of the ‘left’s’ ‘cancel culture’ (perhaps owing to his earlier Marxist allegiance), Jordan Peterson’s practically indistinguishable observations (he speaks of the ‘zeal’ with which the Bolsheviks routinely denounced their enemies as bourgeois for their own advantage) rendered him a public enemy. More perversely still, in Lütticken’s framework, any reference to Peterson in near-neutral terms is likely to be classified as fascist, disqualifying any of this review’s arguments. But as Adorno and Arendt would have it: who is right and who is wrong should not depend on political sympathies alone.

Rose Hammer, The Radical Flu

There are, thankfully, spaces of disengagement between the repetitive denouncements of fascisms in the book. Amongst the critical essays are also presented artistic contributions, which appear to be scripts for performances or lectures.

Remembering the Future, Kader Attia’s touching analysis of today’s political culture notes the disparity between the nostalgic, past/ghost/phantom-driven relationships that inform our everyday lives, and the technocratic, emotionless nature of the ‘left’s’ discourse. If culture, and therefore politics, no longer offers catharsis, Attia’s call is for the reappropriation of emotion, affect, desire and fear, with all their uncertainty and unpredictability. Attia calls on examples from his grassroots project La Colonie to demonstrate the productive potential of this approach.

La Colonie in Paris Photo: La Colonie/Facebook

Johannes Paul Raether’s intriguing collective work From ReproModernism to ReproTechnoTribal offers a perplexing yet alluring account of a live project that is peppered by phrases like ‘I-as-us’, ‘MetaMothers’ and ‘Off Body – social – In-Body – local – In-Body’, and appears to be a diagrammatic design for a new culture, one that repurposes the ubiquity and banality of algorithmic instructions for living (our ‘Ikeality’) into a disruptive, yet sustainable form.

The most experimental and the most intriguing of those contributions is by Rose Hammer, a twenty-artist collective constituted on the occasion of osloBIENNALEN. Their The Radical Flu is a treatment for a play that charts the outbreak of the Spanish Flu in 1918 Oslo that would structurally mirror Roberto Gerhard’s adaptation of Camus’s The Plague. The cast of characters includes a fictional doctor (atheist, reasonable), a religious fool preacher (refuses to be seen by the doctor), a choir (Dies Irae), the sick child (a redeeming death) and historical political figures (including Norway’s first female member of parliament), good Samaritans (nurses) and artists (Munch, Vigeland).

Imagining the arc of the opera, which sees Christiania under lockdown (from the UK’s third Covid-19 lockdown), is oddly uplifting, perhaps because Rose Hammer’s deployment of a cast of two-dimensional characters productively encourages perspective-taking. Much like the best commedia dell’arte was able to convey morality tales by engaging audiences in a role-play game whose outcomes were not necessarily fixed, ‘The Radical Flu’ proposes a simulation in which, yes, fifteen thousand people die, but their society’s ethics are laid bare for analysis. By some estimates, the Spanish Flu killed three per cent of the world’s population; it is nothing short of astonishing that this event’s cultural mythology has not been excavated more thoroughly in light of today’s struggle with a pandemic. Rose Hammer’s play is no mere thriller or instruction manual because it is not the epidemiological strategy that is opened to scrutiny, but it does raise questions, rather, about the disease’s place in the public and private psyche as an internal or external enemy.

Rose Hammer

Geert Lovink, The Invisible Culture Wars

Also notable in the volume is the interview with the media theorist and critic Geert Lovink, whose activities span four decades of culture wars. Despite the interviewers’ attempts to hit the by now predictable antifascist talking points, Lovink is capable of the kind of analytical nuance which would have vastly enhanced Lütticken’s project. As a seasoned media activist and tactician, Lovink is aware of the ambiguous ambivalence of emergent technologies and does not condemn, in contrast with Holert, the ‘networks without a cause’ themselves for the politics they reproduce.

By way of context, Lovink points to the Gramscian belief in the power of ideology as an emancipatory tool that pervaded his practice in the 1990s – the very idea appropriated so successfully by Steve Bannon. If in the culture wars every message can be ideologically targeted and adjusted to individual recipients, as Lovink suggests, then art’s preoccupation with the visible is its own downfall. Are art and its institutions ready to desert from the culture wars and engage, in a refrain to Attia’s suggestion, with the subconscious? ‘There are many places… that need to be occupied’, Lovink replies, ‘but the museum is not on the list.’


This review first appeared in Third Text Online.

Notes[+]

At the limits of representation

Social practice – a prominent and growing aspect of contemporary visual art engaged in social and political realities – has claimed a significant role in bolstering cohesion, empowering communities, and encouraging solidarity between social groups in past decades. It has therefore been a disappointment that in the chaos of pandemic lockdowns, many museums and galleries suspended their social practice programmes, just when their communities needed them the most. With few exceptions, contemporary art’s civic consciousness and the ethos of engagement and inclusion took a step back from more pressing, prosaic concerns of art and artists’ own survival.

While one can hardly blame artists for failing to single-handedly defeat a deadly virus or its economic and social challenges, the pandemic has brought some old questions to the fore again. How do artists, museums and galleries decide whom to support with the resources and skills at their disposal? Why do certain social causes become the causes of art? 

In The Rules of Art, Bourdieu[1]Bourdieu, Pierre. 1996. The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field. Stanford University Press. offers an unflattering view of cultural reproduction. He argues that it is in art’s interest to join social struggles because these create a demand for art: making social art is profitable whether one believes in the cause or not. This model may help to understand some of the most misguided aspects of socially-motivated art practice, for example, Marc Quinn’s intervention that replaced the statue of Edward Colston toppled by BLM protesters in Bristol with a work of his own. Quinn was widely condemned for seeking cultural profit from the suffering of others.

However, Bourdieu’s analysis looks dangerously out of date in light of the armies of artists who until recently took on roles traditionally reserved for social workers, often with little reward. But if art’s social functions are today necessary to the functioning of society, they remain a somehow optional and voluntary aspect of artistic practice. It is then even more important to understand who is and who isn’t included in art’s social remit, and how the priorities of artists themselves shape the priorities of social practices.


A potted history of social art and its relationship to the policy-mandated drive for access and inclusion may help in answering some of these questions. The rise and rise of social art practice begun with the post-1997 cultural policies that charged museums and galleries with finding and nurturing previously unengaged audiences.[2]See for example, Hewitt, Andy. 2011. “Privatizing the Public: Three Rhetorics of Art’s Public Good in ‘Third Way’ Cultural Policy.” Art & the Public Sphere 1 (1): 19–36. To deliver these audiences, institutions hired a generation of freshly-trained artist-facilitators supplied by the ever-expanding and increasingly diverse art schools. In times of plentiful arts funding, this was art’s success story: more art was being made by more (and more diverse) artists for larger (and more diverse) audiences.[3]This is, of course, a simplified account. The argument which follows is concerned with the perceptions of these phenomena, rather than their empirical successes.

In a moment of intoxication with its new mission and unprecedented access to funding, the early 2000s art industry believed that it could tackle social ills at large, not to mention its own internal inequities. In other words, art’s promise of inclusion was not only of empowerment through art that was heralded by social practice. For many audiences, inclusion turned out to be an enticement into the art world workforce itself. 

Here lies a profound paradox: the unintended effect of this expansion of artistic activity is that it created a quasi-class of artists whose political ambitions and professional experience made them acutely critical of their own industry’s failings. Contemporary art’s drive to become more inclusive for its audiences ultimately contributed to the inequalities experienced by its workforce. In transitioning from a modestly sized, relatively homogenous industry of the 1980s in which the number of arts graduates tracked the number of job openings, to an explosive, diverse ‘creative economy’ free-for-all of the 2000s, the cultural workforce grew at a pace even greater than the demand for its labour.

The increased competition for opportunities exacerbates inequalities: if a larger (and more diverse) workforce is competing for more (but not so many more and not necessarily fairer) jobs, any asymmetry in the distribution of advantage becomes more visible. At the same time, long-term trends in the entire UK workforce create the appearance of industries like art becoming more inaccessible when in fact it is the pool of people who experience barriers to success that is changing.[4]For a nuanced discussion of these factors, see Brook, O, D O’Brien, and M Taylor. 2020. Culture Is Bad for You: Inequality in the Cultural and Creative Industries. Manchester University Press. This means that as certain markers of disadvantage in elite professions have diminished in their effect (class, for example), others may have become more prominent. In intersectional analysis, for those parts of the workforce who came to art seeking empowerment, the disappointment of finding an industry unable to dispense it fairly has been palpable. 

Nothing of this, of course, is an argument against diversity. The ideals of access and inclusion, whether instrumental or genuinely felt, are not at fault. A long perspective on their side-effects, however, should prompt a re-examination of art’s continued claims of representation in respect of its stated social justice commitments. The pandemic has illustrated the dangers of relying on loose definitions of who is and who is not included in art’s social remit. In a curious turn, we are seeing artists demanding that they themselves be welcomed again. 


Early on in the pandemic, the Instagram-based #artistsupportpledge initiative saw artists pledge a proportion of their sale takings for buying other artists’ art. In what was an innocent peer-to-peer marketing campaign masquerading as democracy and mutual aid, it’s mission was clear: the artists’ priority is to support artists.

A more striking example came during last Summer’s strikes by a group of some 300 retail, catering, and commercial workers risking redundancy at Tate. The regrettable and all too familiar situation was distinguished by the arguments that the strikers put to management. They reasoned that because many of them were artists by training (despite being employed by Tate in non-art capacities) and because many of them were from underprivileged social backgrounds (which are overrepresented in low-wage sectors like retail), Tate owed them a double duty of care. The implication is profound: being an artist is synonymous with experiencing acute disadvantage aking to racism, sexism, or classism. If artists are by definition underprivileged and the boundaries between their own identities and those of the subjects of social practices are blurred, who is including whom? 

Read in Bourdieu’s tone, art’s principled stand with itself reflects the fact that the industry can stimulate the demand for art without reference to external factors. Having so effortlessly expanded its purview to include the material conditions and aspirations of any community (and therefore of artists), art has little need to include or represent anything other than itself. And since art is also able to adjudicate on the relative merits of any candidate for such inclusion on its own terms, it can continue to make unverifiable claims about its emancipatory power.


This is a version of a text originally published in The Sociological Review.
It is part of a series that continues in Art in Solidarity with Itself.

Main photo: Paul Campbell/Flickr.

Notes[+]

Not Taking Part is Not an Option

From belonging and membership to inclusion and participation

When Marshall McLuhan coined the term ‘global village’ in The Gutenberg Galaxy of 1962, he could not have imagined how quickly reality would outgrow the model he proposed. For the post-war generations, the popularisation of television and aviation brought distant landscapes and realities to the frame of individual experience in unprecedented ways. What developed over the following decades is a paradoxical mixture of illusory ‘nearness’ – the feeling of closeness to distant issues and peoples mediated by news reporting – and an equally illusory feeling of involvement in the affairs of all humanity. The late 20th century citizen felt individual compassion for victims of famines, and took individual action by mandating UN interventions in political conflicts. Before long, the ‘global village’ became a ‘global theatre’.

With this expansion – and simultaneous mediated contraction – in the boundaries of an individual’s intelligible universe, the categories of belonging, participating and membership had to be re-evaluated. A new category of citizen-spectator came into being.

A further complication arises with the arrival of virtual social networks, most poignantly Facebook, in the early years of the 21st century. The increasingly global nature of everyday experience creates a need for a new mode of proximity. Social media have eliminated the issue of distance altogether, bringing equivalence between here and there.

The categories of belonging and inclusion are disrupted again. Communities and social groups can be created online as in the physical realm, and the virtual offers a seductively egalitarian playing field. The very vocabulary of partaking changes: one can join a community, but also sign up to be a member of it, opt in, subscribe, follow or simply Like.

In parallel, institutional artistic practice of the last decades has championed participation. In Western Europe, formal art practices have been expected to engage their audiences in a way never seen before, and to seed solutions to a host of community problems. A new responsibility was placed on art practice to include individuals in the (virtual) realm of art to create a sense of belonging in the everyday.

Such socially engaged work has come under intense scrutiny, and its very aim has been described as utopian. Claire Bishop notes that “participation strives to collapse the distinction between performer and audience, professional and amateur, production and reception” in a way inconsistent with the real. It is something of an irony that Nicholas Bourriaud, whose Relational Aesthetics normalises the tools of participatory art practice, takes on the re-branding our recent present as Altermodern. With Altermodern, art has caught up with Facebook, and artists have become nomads, hyper- and meta connected with and acting on a plurality of constituencies, markets, agencies and stages.

It should be no surprise therefore that the vocabulary of the individual and the communal has reached a point of crisis, and that terms such as belonging, membership, participation, inclusion, engagement and incorporation have all found their way into casual parlance without necessarily answering to singular definitions. This lexical difficulty of taking part is a central interest for both Javier Rodriguez and the artistic duo of Karen Mirza and Brad Butler.

Javier Rordiguez was born in Venezuela in 1975, and in the last fifteen years has lived in Caracas and in London. From this dual perspective, he has been able to find unsettling parallels between the disparate social and political systems. While the UK was for over a decade dominated by New Labour dialectics, Venezuela saw Hugo Chávez come into power with the Bolivarian revolution. Britain entered the 21st century with dreamy aspirations like Rodriguez’ native country.

The lasting grip of such commonly-contested ideals is counter-intuitive at a time when social media make it possible for information and opinion to travel freely and instantly. Through a practice that spans collage, text, installation and video, Rodriguez has compared the mechanism which keep the UK’s and Venezuela’s neo-liberal aspirations in their stead, and has found that the forces at play are not as dissimilar as one may expect.

The artist’s practice stems from a deep study of media channels, in particular of newspaper publishing. From his early works with collage and books, Rodriguez has an intuitive understanding of mechanical reproduction. He has collected and collated books, pamphlets and posters reflecting the history of Latin America, and has contrasted them with the headlines of contemporary newspapers. The resulting works confound their sources. For example La Voz (The Voice), an installation of hundreds of posters on advertising hoardings in Quito in Ecuador, brings together images of the Second World War and mobile phone advertising, under a banner of a fictional news outlet.

Javier Rodriguez, Último Mundo Universal

The term ‘mixed-media’ aptly describes both the technical composition of the artist’s works and their thematic focus. Using newsprint, for example, Rodriguez brings together messages from a variety of sources, processing them with their own means of mechanical reproduction. The resulting works both appropriate and generate content. In 2010, Rodriguez created Último Mundo Universal, a guerrilla mash-up of Venezuela’s three largest tabloid newspapers, from which this project takes its title. The publication borrowed images, headlines and articles from the original national titles, and mixed them with surreal graphic imagery, texts borrowed from Slavoj Žižek, faux-advertising for spiritual media phone lines, death notices, and images of war and conflict from a variety of contexts. The publication was distributed, on a single day, through street vendors in Caracas, who gave away copies of Rodriguez’ newspaper with copies of the tabloid purchased by the public, causing widespread confusion.

Rodriguez manipulates media messages – through a subversion of the sombre tone of political slogan, through placing serious real-life situations in overtly banal contexts, and by fabricating stories with the authority of a newspaper editor – in direct response to media’s own manipulation of reality.

Javier Rodriguez, Último Mundo Universal distributed in Venezuela.

In the UK, Rodriguez has instigated similar projects, and the new publication work launched with the exhibition They don’t know why, but they keep doing it has ambitions of similar scale. The content of the publication is not settled at the time of writing, but the recent scandals relating to phone hacking and the resulting closure of The News of the World, Britain’s best-selling newspaper, open up an array of issues.

When producing his newspaper works, Rodriguez learned about the amount of waste generated by the lithographic printing process. For every thousand copies of a newspaper, a few are damaged or printed incorrectly, and many hundreds at the end of a run are scrapped. Printing houses reuse such waste by printing multiple pages on top of each other in tests, and in cleaning procedures. This way, today’s news is an increment of yesterday’s rejected headlines, and pages eventually become saturated with type, images and ink. This discovery has prompted Rodriguez to develop a non-verbal vocabulary which mirrors that of his publications. Panels of rich magentas and cyans, or pallets filled with stacks of overprinted graphic novels are at once product, archive and waste. Through the very means of mechanical reproduction, the newspaper comments upon itself, amplifying its headline out of recognition until it becomes aesthetic noise.

This kind of engagement – visible in both Rodriguez’s text and colour-field works – is described by Peter Sloterdijk in his 1983 Critique of Cynical Reason as kynicism: a popular rejection of mass culture by means of irony and sarcasm. Žižek later points out that the ruling powers’ response to such cynical subversion is that of classical cynicism: through even more solemn use of moralising rhetoric, and

the veneration of the very institutions which the common action sought to destroy. Rodriguez’s production reveals a paradox of kynical subversion. While Último Mundo Universal is a critique of Venezuelan media’s romance with the ruling powers, it is also an ideal participatory, user-generated ‘media 2.0’ product, in which the reader and writer are the same. The reader-writer is implicitly charged with the responsibility for commenting on – but is also disaffected by – the reality which surrounds him.

The position of the reader-writer as a participant of this reality is called into question: Rodriguez (and his viewer) is at the same time a member and consumer of the culture he critiques – absorbing the headlines, the telenovelas, and the political propaganda – but also its opponent – exposing the very same as absurd and damaging. In his work, Rodriguez accepts, rejects and creates the same elements of reality.

For Rodriguez, this position is one of necessity. Faced with the deep and widespread problems of Venezuela, an individual has little chance of opting out of the political system – a voice outside is a voice not heard. A transition from participant to member of the status quo is perhaps the most productive option.

Karen Mirza and Brad Butler’s body of work The Museum of Non-Participation addresses questions of belonging and alignment in a direct way. The work came to life when Mirza and Butler witnessed – from a window of a controversial exhibition in a newly-opened National Art Gallery in Islamabad – the Lawyers protest and state violence in 2007. This experience, as well as witnessing other moments of change and protest, has led them to consider their position on either side of this gallery window, and to expand such spaces of contestation as generative.

Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, The Museum of Non-Participation

Since 2007, the Museum has sited itself in Pakistan, Switzerland, Egypt, Turkey, Germany and the UK, through the network of art institutions and independently, and using video, photography, performance, text and action. In Karachi, Mirza and Butler staged performances in streets and markets, and using tape drawings, banners and signs hand-painted onto city walls, sited the Museum in contexts where a traditional art institution has no place. In London, for a month in 2009, and in cooperation with Artangel, the Museum assumed a home behind a barber shop in Bethnal Green Road in East London, hosting Urdu language classes, talks, debates and events, inviting the local and art communities alike.

The tile of The Museum of Non-Participation reflects on its own structure and function. The Greek mouseion is a museum without walls. In Urdu, linguistically the project’s birthplace, there is no original word for ‘museum’. Instead, a composite word used in substitution translates back into English as ‘house of the unexpected’.

In this sense, the Museum makes an attempt to seed an anti-apparatus, to allow for a framework which acts against the prevailing system of powers and relations. In marking the presence of an institution, Mirza and Butler’s may ask about our position inside or out, but by only drawing walls with temporary tape and fabric banners, they open up attitudes to issues reaching far beyond institutional critique.

Like Rodriguez, Mirza and Butler have occupied newspapers as medium and used them as source. On the occasion of their 2010 exhibition The Daily Battle at Vivid in Birmingham, Mirza and Butler negotiated a temporary, autonomous space for a series of writers and thinkers on the pages of the Daily Jang, Britain’s only bilingual Urdu-English daily, from which the exhibition took its title. In London, they created a special edition of the same tile, and in Karachi, they disseminated their publication by offering newspaper sheets to market vendors to use as wrapping for food and produce. In parallel, Disturbances Pre-Planned (2009) surveys the language of the newspaper articles relating to debates the artists and the Museum have direct relationships with. A lithographic print creates a taxonomy of headlines, including ‘The prime minister’s confusion’, ‘Time to take charge’ or ‘Include me out!’.

Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, The Museum of Non-Participation

In a traditional sense, the function of a museum is to collect, display, and interpret. The Museum of Non-Participation takes on these roles also, but it operates in real-life environments. Its collection of images, accounts, debates and gestures reflects the potential of the collective gestures, particularly those made by those marginalised and non-aligned, and non-participating, and the context in which they are made. This potential is contained in physical and non-physical images, objects, words and messages, and the Museum, lacking a physical structure, sites itself amongst the issues it collects and displays as a constituent agent.

At Work shown in They don’t know why, refers to the recent exhibition of the same title at the Whitechapel Gallery, consisting of works from the UK Government Art Collection, selected by government figures and, controversially, the prime minister’s wife. The display has met with criticism and was seen by some as inappropriate in times of austerity brought about by cuts in UK government spending, and the exhibition’s title as insensitive. Groups of protesters from leftist art communities have accused politicians of using art to whitewash their tarnished reputations. For Mirza and Butler, the contested exhibition highlighted the issues of museum collecting, and the inherent transfers of power taking place as artworks are acquired, owned, displayed and written about. Commenting on At Work, the artists reflect on the notion of being collected (or incorporated into a collection), considering the place of an individual in a social group in parallel to the place of an artwork in an art collecting.

Considering the consequences of action and the consequences of inaction, the artists draw a parallel between the two. The Museum’s own agency lies in its ability to re-claim the meanings of terms used to describe and formalise our reality. Understanding that non-participation is a condition of participation, the resultant compound word-definition internalises the problematic of the social turn, keeping constantly aware of its own strengths and potential. In an institutional sense, the museum is a generous and open structure, accepting freely any institutional critique its public may serve.

An asset to both Rodriguez and Mirza and Butler are the perspectives offered to them in their international orientations. For Rodriguez, the study of contrasts between Venezuela and the UK activates a productive relationship, and for Mirza and Butler the catalyst is in the ability to draw links from a variety of contexts ranging from East London to Cairo. The key is that contexts are already inter-present: London already contains Cairo, and Caracas already contains London. It is not ‘here and there’, but rather ‘here and elsewhere’.

With Mirza’s and Butler’s non-participation representing in fact the collective agency of the non-aligned, the issue of taking part is as central and complex to the pair’s practice as it is for Rodriguez. The artists are at once producers and audiences, but not in the sense proposed by relational aesthetics. Rather, they hold a deep sense of investment in a number of contexts, in which they act as agents. Actively creating realities and discourses, they partake in their successes and failures. For the artist and their audiences, not taking part is not an option.


This text was originally published in They don’t know why but they keep doing it, a catalogue of an exhibition of the same title.