A curator waking up from a three-year coma and heading to the opening of the Venice Biennale straight from the hospital could be forgiven for thinking that little had happened in the world while they were unconscious. In the pavilions, palazzos, gardens, and warehouses of Venice, they would find little reference to the turmoil and unrest that have dominated news agendas since the last edition. Climate disaster must have been averted. The aftershocks of the last wave of social unrest must have died down. The discontents of imperialism must have found symbolic compensation. Ok, something’s up with Ukraine, but not for the first time. Why, did someone mention a pandemic? Perhaps the interesting times promised by Ralph Rugoff’s 2019 exhibition have failed to arrive.
On the surface, this year’s Biennale is in deep denial of the circumstances that have forced the event to shift from odd to even years. Save for the exhibition attendants’ shouts of mascherina, signore!, one will look for references to the virus in vain. Absent are the symbols of struggles for liberty and popular movements in the vein of Pedro Borràs’ Catalan 2019 entry‘Marcel Borràs: Catalonia in Venice_To Lose Your Head (Idols) – Announcements – e-Flux’, e-flux, 24 April 2019, https://www.e-flux.com/announcements/247991/marcel-borrscatalonia-in-venice-to-lose-your-head-idols/. that called for the toppling of statues. If it weren’t for Barbara Kruger’s sloganeering installation, Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Beginning/Middle/End), 2022, site-specific installation, 2022. there’s hardly a banner, a call, or a declaration in sight. Grand ideas may be name-checked in the catalogue (the curators of the Mexican pavilion, for example, spoke about decolonising the future)‘The Curators of the Mexican Pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale Discuss Decolonising the Future’, ArtReview, 15 April 2022, https://artreview.com/the-curators-of-the-mexican-pavilion-at-the-59th-venice-biennale-discuss-decolonising-the-future/. but one won’t find them elucidated on the walls, not in the manner of Okwui Enwezor’s 2015 project. Where Alexandra Bircken fetishistically knitted Angela Merkel in the last edition, or Natalia Pershina-Yakimanskaya accessorised her protest against Vladimir Putin’s election in 2015,Gluklya and Natalia Pershina-Yakimanskaya, Clothes for Demonstation against False Election of Vladimir Putin, 2015 2011, installation, mix textile, wood, hand writing, 2015 2011, … see more politicians do not seem to have made it into this year’s official exhibitions at all. Even Leonora Carrington’s women somehow don’t reach the cult status of cyphers of art’s political potential. And there’s no trace of George Floyd.
The art world cognoscenti may frown at the notion that the biennial is a place where artists showcase their latest ideas and achievements. We scoff at naïve journalistic references to the ‘cutting edge’, preferring instead to employ euphemisms like ‘the current moment’, or to lose track of our place in history by faddishly embracing notions of the Anthropocene. But the biennial is obsessed with the contemporary and with its politics. For much of the past two decades that saw the rise of political, critical, and engaged art, artists used the platform of the biennial to take stands on the material and issues of their day. Overt politics is what we have come to expect from art. It is perhaps no surprise then that one hack unversed in artspeak prognosticated that this year’s Biennale would be dominated by politics and protest.‘Protests and Politics Will Dominate This Year’s Biennale’, The Economist, 23 April 2022, https://www.economist.com/europe/2022/04/23/protests-and-politics-will-dominate-this-years-biennale. Another journalist took a more ‘informed’ view claiming that artists would surely continue to blow up the system in the face of capitalist opposition,Kate Brown, ‘Venice Biennale Artists Want to Blow Up the Art System. But for Power-Brokers Around Town, That System Was in Full Flower’, Artnet News, 25 April 2022, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/venice-biennale-scene-report-2104294. almost as to excuse art’s feeble and selfish response to some of the past years’ greatest challenges.Pierre d’Alancaisez, ‘Art in Solidarity with Itself’, Arts of the Working Class (Berlin, March 2021), http://artsoftheworkingclass.org/text/art-in-solidarity-with-itself.
But neither the protests nor the tabloid politics materialised: there is little explicit politics in this year’s Venice Biennale. Very few works, if any, engage with the pandemic and one attributes the Brownian motion on Aki Sasamoto’s air hockey table to the virus without guidance.Aki Sasamoto, Sink or Float, 2022, mixed-media installation, 2022, https://universes.art/en/venice-biennale/2022/the-milk-of-dreams-tour-6/aki-sasamoto. Few artists have taken on the civil unrest of the pandemic as the topic or matter of their work, with Stan Douglas’ observation that the Springtime of Nations of 1848 was distinct from the civil unrests of 2011 a rather bizarre exception.Megan Willaims, ‘Stan Douglas Is Canada’s Artist at Venice Biennale but Bristles at Notion of “Representing Canada”’, CBC News, 23 April 2022, https://www.cbc.ca/news/entertainment/stand-douglas-venice-biennale-prtest-1.6425817. The climate crisis hardly made it onto the agenda either, save for Nicolas Bourriaud’s Planet B whose penchant for the 3D-printed organic form is the antithesis of Greta Thunberg’s climate strike.Radicants Curatorial cooperative, ‘PLANET B, climate change and the new sublime, curated by Nicolas Bourriaud’, Radicants, 2022, https://radicants.com/.
Return to form
Has art abandoned its penchant for politics? Have its goals changed? Or has it merely turned to other means? If there appears to be a uniting thread in this year’s Biennale, it is that art has lost its impulse to deal with the present in the present. Instead, it has opted to return to a preoccupation with form. Many of the shows – not least Cecilia Alemani’s The Milk of Dreams – are filled with subdued painting and sculpture, eschewing the spectacular and the incendiary usually expected of Venice.
But it would be a mistake to assume that this wholesale return to form is a turn away from art’s political aspirations. The very gesture of bringing together a majority female show is an act of politics (an idea that Alemani has denied but has nonetheless been accused of curating by numbers),Ben Luke, ‘The Women-Dominated Venice Biennale Has Been Criticised for Sacrificing Quality—Revealing Just How Necessary Such Progressive Projects Really Are’, The Art Newspaper, 27 April 2022, … see more all be it one that plays into the most mechanistic ideas of what art can be. Elsewhere, the Nordic countries ceding ground to the Sámi Pavilion rung equally diplomatic.‘The Sámi Pavilion’, Office for Contemporary Art Norway, 2022, https://oca.no/thesamipavilion.
To find artistic politics in Venice, one has to consider form and matter on their own terms: in the long term. A week can be a long time in politics but the biennial comes after only three years. Suddenly, ‘the current moment’ manifests itself with the muted urgency of static objects. In many places, this contemplation is rewarding, as in the case of Małgorzata Mirga-Tas’ picture-palace installation in the Polish pavilion devoted to Roma histories and identities or in Zineb Sedira’s slow and deliberately homely film set in the French pavilion.
There are also misses in which we see artists attempting to harness the political nature of space, such as in the gimmicky industro-apocalyptic installation by Gian Maria Tosatti in the Italian pavilion that the artist suggested would be political precisely because it was intimate.‘“It Will Be Intimate, Therefore, Political”: Gian Maria Tosatti on Representing Italy at the 59th Venice Biennale’, ArtReview, 20 April 2022, … see more But spectacle is no obstacle: New Zealand’s Paradise Camp by Yuki Kihara is as bombastic as a season finale of Ru Paul’s Drag Race but subtly addresses revisionist histories and identity politics with far more nuance than a Guardian op-ed.
What motivated this change? It may be that events have finally outpaced art’s wit: unable to find the time to deal in abstractions, artists cannot keep up even with the production of artistic hot takes. What of value and on deadline could art contribute to the complex realities of the pandemic? Perhaps the suspension of the biennale schedule allowed some to break out of the creativity rat race.
Events continue to unfold
But this reprieve is likely to be only temporary as events continue to unfold. The Biennale may have had little to say about the war in Ukraine but some artists were obliged to make their mark. For the Russian delegation, the decision to pull outKate Brown, ‘The Artists and Curator Behind the Russia Pavilion Have Pulled Out of the Venice Biennale Amid the Ongoing War in Ukraine’, Artnet News, 28 February 2022, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/russia-pavilion-closed-2078616. would have been a matter of choosing between credible futures in their local or global art scenes. One can imagine that the calculation was radically different for Alexei Kuzmich whose blasphemous intervention outside the Russian Pavilion landed him in jail but received only a nodding response from the preview crowds. The actor Aleksey Yudnikov who staged a less incendiary but similarly provocative performance a day earlier had the foresight to secure the attention of the press and the support of the NGO Artists at Risk.Hannah McGivern and José da Silva, ‘Ukrainian Actor Performs with Putin Mask on His Crotch Outside the Venice Biennale’s Russian Pavilion’, The Art Newspaper, 22 April 2022, … see more
Beyond a modest presentation in its pavilion, Ukraine outsourced its national response to a private contractor. Under what one imagines was considerable pressure but with no shortage of cash, the Victor Pinchuk Foundation presented a heavy-handed exhibition branded with a handwritten message from Volodymyr Zelenskyy whose gala opening included a streamed address by the president.Julia Halperin, ‘Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky Makes an Urgent Plea at the Venice Biennale for the Art World to Shine a Light on Ukraine’, Artnet News, 21 April 2022, … see more It’s hard not to contrast this presentation in a grand historical venue fit more for Jeff Koons sculptures than for contemplations of war with Ukraine’s 2015 pavilion, also commissioned by Pinchuk Art Centre, which cramped a group of artists into a temporary glass structure and asked them to pose for publicity photographs with an Instagram-friendly banner declaring that they have hope.‘Preview Days and First Visitors at Pavilion of Ukraine at the 56th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale Di Venezia’, Pinchuk Art Centre, accessed 6 May 2022, http://pinchukartcentre.org/photo_and_video/photo/28583.
Seven years on, the works in This is Ukrainemade by Yevgenia Belorusets, Nikita Kadan,I used to represent the artist Nikita Kadan, who showed in both these exhibitions, at my gallery waterside contemporary. and Lesia Khomenko under Russian occupation are suitably moving and harrowing. But just like in 2015, Pinchuk did not pass up an opportunity to remind us that war is good for business by inviting the likes of Takashi Murakami, Olafur Eliasson, and Damien Hirst to celebrate their “deep connection to [Ukraine] whilst forming a common front against the war.”‘This Is Ukraine: Defending Freedom’, Pinchuk Art Centre, 2022, https://new.pinchukartcentre.org/thisisukraine-en. Would it be in bad taste to question what connection Hirst has to Ukraine, other than being keenly collected and exhibited by Pinchuk? Would it be in even worse taste for Hirst to have produced one of his butterfly paintings depicting the Ukrainian flag to order and to have already placed it in an undisclosed ‘private collection’?
If further evidence were needed that institutionalised art may find itself irredeemable when it tries to tackle explicit political issues, one should look to the streets of Venice. Among the anti-fascist graffiti familiar from any Italian street were posters advocating for the closure of an oligarch-supported art centre in Venice and a genocidal “sinking [of] the [Russian] horde into oblivion.”‘CANCEL RUSSIA’, accessed 6 May 2022, https://cancelrussia.info/. Whever political turn art’s return to form signals, the realities of a chaotic, antagonistic world will return to the spotlight only too soon.
Analytical fashions come and go, but the postmodern concept of hyper-reality, the state in which distinguishing between reality and its simulation becomes impossible refuses to fade into irrelevance. In January, the political historian Anton Jäger suggested that we have finally entered the era of hyper-politics: the phase in the evolution of democratic societies when anything and everything becomes a matter of politics.Anton Jäger, ‘How the World Went from Post-Politics to Hyper-Politics’, 3 January 2022, https://tribunemag.co.uk/2022/01/from-post-politics-to-hyper-politics. This hyper-politics is not the politics of the union movement or partisan electoral gestures. Hyper-politics, instead, is the ideological scrutiny of every event that saturates all spheres of life and from which there is no opting out. In the age of hyper-politics, your aunt has loudly articulated opinions on lockdowns, statues, free speech, and trans rights. And boy, are they political.
If hyper-politics is a malaise that breaks all the promises of political participation by distracting us from the substance of political realities, an age of hyper-economics follows closely on its coattails. Like hyper-politics, hyper-economics has little to do with the here-and-now economics of jobs, taxes, or business grants. Instead, it’s an economics of the global stage, of OECD, WTO, and other acronymised ideas. Like hyper-politics, this global hyper-economics is so seductive that it draws us to participate in world-shaping debates which would have been the preserve of government experts and trade emissaries until not long ago. And just like that of hyper-politics, hyper-economics’ role is to loosen our grip on the reality of power by creating the illusion that the discourse we are participating in is the reality.
Hyper-economics’ favourite issue is anti-globalization. After a brief respite from MAGA politics, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought the Manichean morality of global flows of goods back into everyday focus. Isn’t it good of Apple Pay to boycott the Moscow metro? Have our elected representatives moved quickly enough to sanction Russian aluminium? These are valid concerns and we cannot blame economic pundits for speculating on the future shape of the economic system that has supplied our food and fuel for decades. But the critiques of the economic impasse are indicative of a dearth of new ideas. Certainly, globalization “has run its sorry course”Nick Timothy, ‘Globalisation Has Run Its Sorry Course. We Must Find a New Model’, The Telegraph, 27 March 2022, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2022/03/27/globalisation-has-run-sorry-course-must-find-new-model/. and has shown itself to be incompatible with freedom.‘Confronting Russia Shows the Tension between Free Trade and Freedom’, The Economist, 19 March 2022, https://www.economist.com/leaders/2022/03/19/confronting-russia-shows-the-tension-between-free-trade-and-freedom. But to conclude that ‘something has to give’ because we no longer like the smell of Russian gas is to ignore that the internal contradictions of global flows of capital have been obvious for decades.
The nature of the proposed successors to the globalist order remains nebulous. The global economic order’s proposed successors include versions of radical independence, strategic diversity, brute-force free trade, multilateral protectionism, and even dreams of a global plan economy. Some of these propositions have the ring of Trump’s ‘America First’ or Brexit’s ‘Take Back Control’, in tone if not intent. After ‘Chaina’ and ‘Brussels’, Russia makes for the perfectly immoral economic bogeyman.
It remains unclear who would lead a sweeping overhaul of the world’s economic order: the great man of history theory lacks a Reagan or a Thatcher for 2022. Pretenders are plentiful but even Trump’s assault on international trade run out of steam even before the pandemic hit. But the lack of a daring global economic vision amongst G7 leaders should not distract us from the fact that those ‘great men’ are still around and that they have been practising the hard economics of dollars and renminbi while we have been distracted by the ideological debates of hyper-economics.
Today’s greats are the men of Davos, the oligarchs of Russia, China, or the US. Here, that ‘hyper’ prefix which indicates an untrue reality comes in handy again: ‘great men’ don’t need greatness. Granted, some harbour ambitions of colonizing Mars, but the majority wouldn’t even make the news if they became the subject of economic sanctions. They are immune to scrutiny because they have made Faustian pacts with hyper-economics’ spiritual leaders: Klaus Schwab, Vladimir Putin, and Xi Jinping. Of course, these great men are not following some conspiratorial plot devised to return the world’s global order to some status quo ante and who has the upper hand changes periodically. This hardly matters because the object of the game is to harness the flows of capital and war, in the long run, is good for business. The sublime magic of hyper-economics is that it no longer relies on the international rules-based order. Just like democracy is no longer a prerequisite of capitalism, neither is a global consensus essential to globalization.
The superbly obfuscating power of hyper-economics at times of conflict is that it steals the moral valour of international diplomacy ostensibly rooted in political deliberation. How effective are governments and multilateral organizations in shaping a global future when their promise of war-ending sanctions and fracking proves to be no match for war itself? Is it not the case that for all the political contingency of the global commodity trade, the power of NATO allies over Russia’s economy has remained merely symbolic?
It turns out that stopping Nord Stream 2 does surprisingly little to arrest the undercurrent of capital circulation that keeps the disciples of Schwab and Putin in power. This is, of course, an inevitable effect of deregulating and privatizing our economies completed with China’s full embrace of ‘state capitalism’.Karl Gerth, Unending Capitalism: How Consumerism Negated China’s Communist Revolution (Cambridge, United Kingdom New York Port Melbourne New Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2020), https://doi.org/10.1017/9781139025225. We have become so economically libertarian that it is now too late to pull the moral handbrake. Between the flows of Taiwanese semiconductors and Ukrainian grain, we are now one shortage of agricultural fertilizer away from joining the UK secretary of state Liz Truss in nostalgically waxing about the country’s international cheese trade balance.Conservative Party Conference Speech, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y2V3PrfN98U.
This mismatch of morality and scale is also the missed potential of protectionist populisms or the fantasies of economic green transition that in hyper-economic terms rely on simplistic, singular interventions in the exchange of commodities. It is unsettling to think that Steve Bannon’s Movement and the Paris Accord could fulfil their goals through similar means, but even more so to understand that both at the core rely on relegating political agency to the men behind Davos, the Kremlin, or Beijing.
Karl Gerth, Unending Capitalism: How Consumerism Negated China’s Communist Revolution (Cambridge, United Kingdom New York Port Melbourne New Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2020), https://doi.org/10.1017/9781139025225.
In 1965, the scientist and novelist C.P. Snow gave his infamous Rede lecture The Two Cultures in which he lamented the state of the perennial debate on the relative merits of scientific and humanistic thought. In an oft-quoted passage, Snow described asking his literary colleagues about the Second Law of Thermodynamics. “The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?”C P Snow and S Collini, The Two Cultures, ACLS Humanities E-Book, e-pub (Cambridge University Press (Canto Classics), 1993), chap. 1. This comical situation might seem familiar today. How many literary critics keep up with current research in mathematics? Do material scientists follow the developments in critical theory? Equally pointedly: how do gender scholars understand the basics of human biology? Do pharmaceutical researchers have the tools to consider the socio-ethical effects of their lab research?
If these latter examples court controversy, it is because I want to argue that the conflict between the disciplines is as much one of competition for who can offer the most compelling description of reality or most effectively control resources, as it is one of fundamental attitudes to what knowledge is. How, for example, is it possible for an evolutionary biologist to maintain that there are only two human sexesXi, Meimei. ‘Biology Lecturer’s Comments on Biological Sex Draw Backlash’. The Harvard Crimson, 12 August 2021. https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2021/8/11/biology-lecturer-gender-comments-backlash/. but for a historian to propose that the variety of gender expressions invalidates the sex binary?The Washington Times, ‘University of Toronto Historian: Biological Sex a “Very Popular Misconception”’, The Washington Times, 2016 <https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2016/dec/2/university-historian-biological-sex-misconception/> … see more Without evaluating the merits of their positions, I’ll observe that the two scholars are not simply making competing interpretations of the available evidence. They are, in fact, in profound disagreement over what and how it is possible for them to know. Once they have staked their positions, it is in the interest of each to insist that those epistemic beliefs are beyond the reach of politics. After all, biology looks at nature objectively by definition, right? And gender theory, surely, always produces only impeccable politics. Best, then, not to query either.
Such differences originate at the disciplines’ epistemic foundations, that is in their divergent answers to the question of what and how we can ever know about the world. We may be used to observing these disagreements as they manifest in everyday culture as in my example, but I propose that they are more appropriately understood as a matter of epistemic politics that pertains to the nature and practice of research itself. A discipline’s epistemic politics (a term I borrow from the cultural theorist Tom Holert)Tom Holert, Knowledge Beside Itself: Contemporary Art’s Epistemic Politics (Sternberg Press, 2020). is the propensity of a knowledge system to engage with others on adversarial terms. And so, science’s epistemic politics suggests that there is something politically particular to how scientists know science that makes them resilient to accepting the validity of humanist thought. In the humanities, vice-versa.
Epistemic politics emanates from the very first principles of knowledge-making and its primary applications. These politics do not easily translate to the everyday politics of progressivism and conservatism. In the liberal everyday, for example, we may be perfectly capable of holding conflicting knowledges, simultaneously embracing the certainty of science when it comes to climate change and rejecting it in favour of the social construction of gender. At the level of epistemic politics, this is nothing short of cognitive dissonance.
War of the disciplines
Epistemic politics has long been mixed up with political conflict. More than five decades ago, Snow identified that the knowledge gap between the humanities and the sciences was nearly irreconcilable. Not only would the 20th century Renaissance man struggle to cover the vast ground of multiple disciplines, but he lacked the conviction to do so. By the 1960s, it had become a point of pride for literary intellectuals who were for Snow synonymous with the incumbent ruling classes to maintain a pointed ignorance of the sciences. The day’s scientists and technologists reciprocated by ignoring the basic assumptions of the humanities as they challenged the traditional forms of power. The critic Stefan Collini highlighted the intensely political nature of The Two Cultures controversy.C P Snow and S Collini, The Two Cultures, ACLS Humanities E-Book (Cambridge University Press (Canto Classics), 1993). This was a time of two opposing revolutions: one technological and one social. From his bench, Snow argued that for the literary scholar to remain ignorant of the scientific could only impede human progress because the uninformed humanities would waste everybody’s time attempting to invalidate scientific thought.
Harsh but fair? No wonder Snow failed to win the sympathy of his audiences and his lecture is perhaps the first exhibit in the museum of the culture wars. But the power-play he identified persists. Today, we worry about holding runaway technological innovation in check using the tools of the humanities that often prove inadequate to the taskGerard Delanty and Neal Harris, ‘Critical Theory and the Question of Technology: The Frankfurt School Revisited’, Thesis Eleven, 2021, 07255136211002055 <https://doi.org/10.1177/07255136211002055>. just as Snow had predicted. In the decades since his call, disciplines have staked their positions across an ideological divideT Becher and P Trowler, Academic Tribes And Territories: Intellectual Enquiry and the Culture of Disciplines, SRHE and Open University Press Imprint (Open University Press, 2001). in what we may observe as the politicization of the academy.
This is a grotesquely simplified view of disciplinary discourses, but it highlights a key problem of the academy’s epistemic rifts: that each faculty’s fundamental outlooks are inescapably political. As the disciplines develop a growing range of epistemic idiosyncrasies, we ignore them at our peril.
It is easy to forget that the modern academy, with its disciplinary categories and faculty divisions, is effectively an 18th-century invention. Before the advent of the Humboldtian model of the university what knowledge meant was in part a matter of local fashion. In a world in which disciplinary boundaries were porous,G. E. R. Lloyd, Disciplines in the Making: Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Elites, Learning, and Innovation (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). ‘real world’ politics and the politics of research were nearly synonymous. But as much as this integrated knowledge world looks like an idyll from the perspective of today’s politically polarized academy, it was but a fiction.
However much we might pine after a knowledge culture in which different fields complement each other and compete to find the best answers in areas of common interest, as the sciences, humanities, and the arts went their ways, each carried away the conviction that its fundamental dogmas were reality’s best bet. Are such narratives the result of the ongoing marketization of the academyGeoff Whitty, ‘Marketization and Post-Marketization in Education’, in Second International Handbook of Educational Change, ed. by Andy Hargreaves and others, Springer International Handbooks of Education (Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands, … see more that sees researchers compete for resources and attention? If so, then epistemic specialization could be understood as a productive strategy in the marketplace of ideas and it would only be natural that scientists pose and answer questions in ways unintelligible to humanists who, in turn, would have a range of subjects and idiosyncratic epistemic approaches of their own.
But market capitalism cannot be blamed for everything, and it is not merely the object of knowledge but the nature of thought itself that is in question. Epistemic politics, then, concerns not what we know, but how or even why: the human relationship to truth itself.
In his lecture, Snow proposed investing in interdisciplinary collaborations that have become commonplace in the academy since.Christina Raasch and others, ‘The Rise and Fall of Interdisciplinary Research: The Case of Open Source Innovation’, Research Policy, 42.5 (2013), 1138–51 <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.respol.2013.01.010>. Could disparate knowledge forces be brought together through greater dialogue between the disciplines? To further examine the disciplines’ attitudes to knowledge is to stumble upon irreconcilable conflicts: the success of one discipline often relies on undermining the findings of another on grounds of epistemic ideology rather than evidence. This is a tactic that the feminist critic Gayatri Spivak described as epistemic violence.Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), pp. 271–313. In the earlier question of the sex/gender binary, this tactic encompasses biology’s ideological refusal to accommodate the diversity of gender and the retaliation of critical humanities in undermining the validity of biological sex. One might seek to separate the disciplines and observe that their descriptions concern distinct aspects of a reality. But by the time we introduce a complaint of violence into the analysis, such nuance is unlikely to remain in the foreground.
How would we bring together today’s scientists and engineers with humanists and critical scholars in pursuit of unified theories when their beliefs are fundamentally misaligned? For the first camp, the idea of objective truth production and a rigorous approach to evidence is synonymous with political neutrality that nonetheless relies on the wholesale rejection of knowledges produced by the humanities and the liberal arts. For the latter, knowledge production depends on an investment in situatedness and complexity, and the freedom to disregard what to scientists look like incontrovertible facts, on grounds of the ethical and political superiority of this method.
Interdisciplinarity is difficult: any attempt to ignore the totalizing desires of competing schools of thought under its banner is at best naïve. Apart from relying on resources and conditions rarely present in the academy, interdisciplinarity requires a near-utopian non-hierarchical coming together of epistemes. But even under such rare circumstances, interdisciplinarity is not a practice for resolving the questions of epistemic politics. At best, it can create knowledge that builds an epistemic politics of its own.
Outside the ivory tower
If epistemic politics is only a minor constituent of the politics of the ballot box, does it matter outside the academy or indeed outside the rarefied discourse of epistemology? Nowhere have the conflicts of epistemic politics been more visible than in the recent arguments over the role of science in the public policy responses to Covid-19. Many political leaders repeated the mantras of ‘following the science’ while taking momentous decisions. And they would have got away with it because ‘the science’ was happy to maintain the politicians’ fiction of apoliticality as long as that fiction supported science’s epistemic politics. It took a significant amount of debate and pressure before that ‘science’ conceded that its findings weren’t always conclusive and that it had little to say about the trade-offs of policy decisions.
And this denial of sciences’ epistemic politics did not go unnoticed as attention turned towards vaccine hesitancy and mask-mandate dissent. On the surface, some of the arguments put forward by the opponents of the more restrictive public health measures have been almost scientific in pointing to the limited evidence of vaccine safety or mask efficacy. Without suggesting that these concerns indeed have scientific grounds, shouldn’t mainstream science encourage calls for independent evaluation and effortlessly incorporate them into the balance of narratives? Aren’t questions of medication safety easily answered by well-practised evidentiary practices?
It should, and they are, but science’s epistemic politics led it to concentrate on discrediting the political motivations of anti-vax, anti-mask, and anti-mandate sentiments rather than responding to their knowledge claims on their own grounds. In its misguided bid to appear apolitical while so doing, ‘the science’ gave up its ability to engage with fundamental questions such as the relationship between scientific determinism and human autonomy. As a result, science’s attempts of fighting misinformation proved to be largely ineffective and science was left open to attacks from disciplines with conflicting ideological priorities.
This is important because a science unaware of its own epistemic politics cannot participate in politics proper. And yet, the self-preservation instinct of scientists is to deny the possibility of any bias in knowledge-making politics. Latour and Woolgar’s 1979 exposé of the socially constructed nature of scientific practiceBruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts, 2013. did not convince scientists that their universalist and determinist paths to knowledge were more winding than they may have thought. If anything, the idea that science may be in some sense human-made has invited defences like Jonathan Rauch’s recent The Constitution of KnowledgeJonathan Rauch, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2021). which argues that scientific reason should be protected from corrupting social ideologies.Laura Ford addresses some of the political limitations of this approach in her review of Rauch’s book. Laura Ford, ‘The Limits of Liberal Science’, The Bulwark, 4 November 2021, https://www.thebulwark.com/the-limits-of-liberal-science/ Which knowledge and whose politics take primacy when such differences remain unresolved?
At the limits of knowledge
In his recent work, the philosopher Nathan Ballantyne has addressed the problems of intellectual trespass and humility that affect scholars of all disciplines and the difficulty they pose for lay members of the public navigating between logically exclusive epistemic regimes.Nathan Ballantyne, ‘Epistemic Trespassing’, Mind, 128.510 (2019), 367–95 <https://doi.org/10.1093/mind/fzx042>; Nathan Ballantyne, ‘Recent Work on Intellectual Humility: A Philosopher’s Perspective’, The Journal of … see more The bad news is that even knowing when one has considered enough evidence to solve a particular problem requires a high degree of epistemic flexibility. If we accept that choosing where to place one’s trust is an inherently political decision for a layperson, why wouldn’t we assume an even greater level of political investment of a scholar?
Of course, this problem is present in the humanities and the liberal arts just as readily as it appeared in the sciences. The gender and sex debates that I alluded to are another example of political action hiding behind a ‘pure knowledge’ discourse. In one of her YouTube appearances, the feminist critic Camille Paglia lamented the fact that gender studies refused to involve biologists in mapping the field at the outset.Camille Paglia and Jordan Peterson, ‘Modern Times: Camille Paglia & Jordan B Peterson’, 2017 <https://youtu.be/v-hIVnmUdXM?t=1701> [accessed 18 September 2021]. This is another example of a discipline excluding whole classes of evidence on political grounds. It isn’t that gender studies lack the understanding of biological sex: their epistemic politics dictates that they must deny the epistemic validity of thinking about their central question in scientific terms.
This epistemic politics comes long before the radical politics of that we recognize in liberation discourses of the critical humanities. So much so that the profoundly partisan politics of gender studies can be understood as a mere byproduct of the discipline’s epistemic disposition. And as with science, the political claims of the humanities are often unfounded: when humanistic disciplines present themselves as political antidotes to forms of fascism, they do so in a propagandistic manner that does little to support knowledge production, let alone the integration of disparate epistemic systems.
Like in my example of the vaccination drive, the success of gender constructionism relies on the complete invalidation of biology’s epistemic methods because the social theory of gender is unwilling to question its own epistemic politics in a manner legible to its perceived adversaries. As science inadvertently contributed to the anti-science sentiments of anti-vaxxers, so does the political certainty of gender theory give rise to the very opposition it seeks to fight.
Sometimes this has unexpected and far-reaching consequences. Even the law, a practice intimately concerned with the nature of truth and invested in translating epistemic politics into politics proper has fallen foul of the clash of the disciplines. The American Civil Liberties Union’s recontextualization of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s position on the nature of the bodily autonomy of women is just one example of the epistemic drift from the positivist to the constructed notion of what makes a woman.Michael Powell, ‘A.C.L.U. Apologizes for Tweet That Altered Quote by Justice Ginsburg’, The New York Times, 28 September 2021, section U.S. <https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/27/us/aclu-apologizes-ginsburg-quote.html> [accessed 1 … see more By the time it came to Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s SCOTUS confirmation, the question was moot.Jonathan Weisman, ‘A Demand to Define “Woman” Injects Gender Politics into Jackson’s Confirmation Hearings.’, The New York Times, 23 March 2022, sec. U.S., … see more
Whichever side one takes in the real-world politics of this issue, the fact that these legal arguments rely on unresolved epistemic conflicts can only be a weakness. To some, epistemic polarization may appear as an opportunity for subversion, but it leads to a dead end. And as science’s vaccination campaigns run aground because they couldn’t contend with politics, I believe that the epistemic politics of the politics of gender will falter because it is not open to anything other than a predetermined set of radical progressive politics.
Staking our claims again
It was ever thus. That politics rules the epistemic is evident from the historical record of knowledge breakthroughs. Did the Catholic Church, for example, refuse to acknowledge Galileo’s work because it wasn’t convinced by his arguments or because its power relied on not sharing an epistemic primacy with mere mortals? But such gains as those of the Church are short-lived and if we allow this epistemic struggle to continue, we may be trading claims of political neutrality and supremacy ad infinitum. Or, perhaps, we could try and find ways of breaking out of it.
To do so, we must stop treating our epistemic toolkits as politically determined and refrain from delegating the politics of knowledges to the fields of their application where their discourse is inevitably adversarial. Would it not be easier to acknowledge our politics and then treat its forays into other fields as acts of epistemic and political trespass over which we must maintain full ethical control? I am not suggesting ridding the academy of politics. On the contrary, I call for making its epistemic politics active and transparent at a much more fundamental level.
Many formidable attempts to employ this method have already been made. Kathryn Paige Harden’s recent book The Genetic Lottery,Kathryn Paige Harden, The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality, 2021. for example, builds a humanist argument from scientific data. Beyond its urgent topicality, the greatest value of this work is that it is explicit about the political dimension of its epistemic approach and therefore it can test its thesis outside its customary controlled (and limited) environment.
In Humanist Reason, a rousing manifesto for the reconfiguration of the humanist method, Eric Hayot questions his discipline’s oppositional epistemic politics. Do humanities scholars today truly believe that gravity or biology are merely social constructs?E Hayot, Humanist Reason: A History. an Argument. a Plan (Columbia University Press, 2021). Perhaps not. Hayot challenges the stasis of pretending to earnestly hold such irrational beliefs just because it is easier than re-reading Isaac Newton. The stalemate is systemic: a critical studies scholar would be out of a job if they were to concede the validity of scientific evidence that contravenes their own episteme’s assumptions. Likewise, any scientist despairing at the difficulties of applying the neatly deterministic solutions of science in the social realm may benefit from simply ignoring the unruly complexities of the real world.
The key concern is not merely that the humanities and the sciences do not readily engage with dissenting forms of knowledge production, but that they fail to see their own worldviews as negotiable. This is because most knowledge understands itself as is produced through the application of only a singular set of epistemic tools. Science must owe nothing to poetry, the humanities would rather mathematics didn’t exist. Hayot’s response is to confront the humanities with an epistemic challenge that stems from within, reframing their epistemic politics in a manner that acknowledges the arbitrary nature of their dogma. To maintain its command over knowledge, any practice must continuously question its most basic assumptions.
I may be displaying my own naïve bias here: I took my first degree in Physics and am currently writing a doctoral thesis in the liberal arts, but my training in neither began with an in-depth discussion of their epistemic positions. I could flatter myself that like C.P. Snow I am well-equipped to evaluate ideas using the tools of their political opponents, but this could be an illusion (Snow was far less successful as a scientist than as a man of letters). To know as a scientist and a humanist at once is difficult. To do politics, much easier.
Geoff Whitty, ‘Marketization and Post-Marketization in Education’, in Second International Handbook of Educational Change, ed. by Andy Hargreaves and others, Springer International Handbooks of Education (Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands, 2009), pp. 405–13 <https://doi.org/10.1007/978-90-481-2660-6_24>.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), pp. 271–313.
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.
This road trip is the plot of Aleksey Balabanov’s 2012 film Me Too (that is ‘I, too, want happiness).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,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 StrugatskyArkady 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.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 BeyHakim 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?
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,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.
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,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 WeizmanMatthew 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 positivistsWeizman 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.
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.
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, 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,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).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 videolight2tube, 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.
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 questionEmmet 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 networkNoah 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.
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 OneSteven 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.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,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,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.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.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.
Plenty of critiques have been levelled at the biennial and the process of ‘biennialisation’ of contemporary art that renders it inseparable from the zone.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.
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 than the visitor. This is the biennial’s attempt to make the extra-territorial local.
Or the Making of the Professional Art-managerial Class
Spring is here and it’s time to head into the garden. I share my allotment in central London with about thirty other locals, most of whom live in social housing. We have a WhatsApp group through which we arrange get-togethers and argue about the best way to grow spinach. The little administration that needs to happen happens mostly by itself. Someone tends to the trees, someone else plants flowers in the communal patches, another obsessively clears out weeds. I take perverse pleasure in maintaining the compost heap. The garden feels like a healthy ecosystem of plants, land, and people, an exemplar of happy community life.
How did this idyll come to be? It wasn’t in the city planners’ master design for post-war living, it isn’t part of the local council’s allotment scheme, and it wasn’t even the result of a few locals’ good intentions. No, my community garden is an art project. Let that sink in: the vegetable patch where I grow kale and where slugs eat my lettuce was initiated by an artist collective. Every aspect of the vegetable patch was originally decided on by an artist. Artists brought the community together, mediated interests, divided plots, and allocated flower beds. When the artists did all these things, they did them as artists (all be it as artists that specialise in community and land projects) rather than as members of the community.
Five different funding organisations supported the artists’ work with the community. For months and years, the artists came and went, orchestrating events like communal bread-making and maypole dancing, each recorded eagerly with their 16mm film camera. Ten years after the project began and with the help of yet another public funding agency, the artists presented their artistic film work in an exhibition at a local non-profit gallery. The exhibition text boasted of the housing estate’s “Bangladeshi, European, Kurdish, Serbian, Turkish, Ugandan and West Indian communities” that came together in the making of the garden and the artworks.
Isn’t my garden a living example of culture doing what it does best, that is bringing people together and helping them work towards a shared purpose? Don’t we want to cooperate for more community gardens and more exhibitions? If there is some conflict between the artists’ and the participants’ interests, don’t we know how to resolve it ethically and with care? Isn’t the outcome a net positive for all involved? These are all pertinent questions that the art world answers in the positive, as do the communities, by and large. But there’s another dimension that causes me concern: did my community need artists to start an ad-hoc vegetable garden? Did my community need artists to become a community?
The great replacement
The terms ‘social practice’ or ‘socially engaged art’ could describe any number of activities ranging from the building of gardens, running after-school activities for children, leading walking clubs, to hosting dance classes. The one thing that these examples of socially engaged art have in common is that artists are involved. This practice came of age in the early years of the millennium in part as a by-product of the New Labour Government’s investment in the creative industries and the arts. The policy and political mechanisms that facilitated this evolution were complex and remain contestedDavid Hesmondhalgh et al., Culture, Economy and Politics: The Case of New Labour (Springer, 2015). but at ground level, it appeared as though the state’s mechanisms of policing, social work, welfare, and even healthcare were being replaced by arts interventions. Where once a social worker looked out for the young people of a housing estate, there was instead an artist leading a mural-painting workshop. Schools facing pressures found it easier to access funding for artist-in-residence programmes than for teachers. Eventually, under the aegis of ‘social proscribing’ healthcare professionals were asked to try sending some patients to pottery classes instead of burdening mental health services with them.
Cynically, one may observe that artists are cheaper than police officers or doctors. Almost as cynically, one may argue that artists are nearly as effective at holding communities together as the crumbling structures of the welfare state around them once were. In the decade of austerity economics followed by the pandemic crisis, calls on art’s ability to pick up the slack of civil society have only intensified. In principle, this is a golden formula: culture and artists have contributed to the public sphere for millennia. As demand for art’s social interventions grew, social practice became a viable career alternative for the ever-growing number of art school graduates and a generation of artists have now been trained in supporting communities.
But what happens when the army of social art practitioners grows so large that it begins to make structural demands of its own? Who are socially engaged artists if we were to think of them as a professional class? How are they, as a guild, predisposed towards the communities they serve and towards the professions they have come to replace?
Artist-managers for the community
Artists can participate in communities in many ways. Sometimes, they may volunteer their skills and resources for the benefit of others. When they do that, artists hold no exalted space in the community’s hierarchical structures, at least not one that would automatically rank them ahead of nurses, teachers, or housewives.
In other situations, artists hold a degree of power over other members of their communities. As in my allotment garden, artists often act as the initiators and managers of projects that touch on questions of access to essential communal resources. In return, they receive a fee and are given the freedom to shape their projects. Such control may be subject to codes but in no small sense, artists working with communities can sometimes decide who gets to grow potatoes and who doesn’t.
With artists now deployed to serve community needs as diverse as social cohesion, crime prevention, employability, or access to training, let alone the physical state of social housing, community centres, or parks, the class interests of artists in these processes are not a trivial matter. Often, the power relationships follow straightforward Bourdesian lines. The Austrian artistic collective WochenKlausur, for example, has been practising ‘social intervention’ since 1993 and describes access to “an infrastructural framework and cultural capital” of an art institution as a “prerequisite” for every project”.‘Method’, WochenKlausur, accessed 14 March 2022, https://wochenklausur.at/methode.php?lang=en.WochenKlausur’s forty projects have included the renovation of a refugee hostel in Sweden and home improvements in a neighbourhood in Israel.
Why would it take contractor-artists to decide on the furnishings that refugees sleep on? Why do Viennese creatives need to exert control over whose house in Holon should have its faulty plumbing fixed? Crucially, why should WochenKlausur be handed control of the capital – both tangible and symbolic – on which their client communities depend? What is WochenKausur’s role in these endeavours if not that of professional – by which I mean remunerated – project managers?
Perhaps social practice should be applauded for bringing art’s resources and skills, including access to arts funding, to communities. Sometimes, however, WochenKlausur appear to be doing the opposite and extracting resources from their subjects. Their 2016 residency in a mental health institution in the Netherlands is a clear example. After spending a period ‘researching’ the organisation, the artists negotiated further access – and further funding – for a further artist to make a further intervention into the life of the hospital. While the collective’s website glosses over the project’s potential benefit to the hospital’s patients, its focus is to advocate for the importance of employing – and paying – artists as figures crucial to the provision of public health services.WochenKlausur, Artistic Strategies in Psychiatry, 2016, https://wochenklausur.at/projekt.php?lang=en&id=45.
Art versus the community
Was WochenKlausur’s ‘artistic intervention’ performed for the benefit of a local Dutch community, or were artists themselves its greater recipient? Is it a coincidence that most of the subjects of the collective’s interventions are among the most disadvantaged in society while their facilitators are institutionally-credentialled artists and project managers? Is the artist’s participation in all these social projects strictly essential? Given that community gardens had existed without the involvement of art school graduates for decades, the role of artists in such initiatives may legitimately be called into question.
I am not questioning art’s utility in solving social problems – this issue has received ample attention elsewhere. Instead, my interest lies in the unintended consequences of introducing artists as problem solvers at a mass scale and the costs associated with using them to replace structures that already had other solutions. At one level, the implications are practical: what proportion of the resources available for, for example, building a children’s adventure playground in Glasgow should be spent on artists’ fees and on publicising such a project when its designers Assemble win the Turner Prize?Assemble. Granby Four Streets. 2013. https://assemblestudio.co.uk/projects/granby-four-streets-2. What precedent does the distribution of resources in such a manner set for the construction of future playgrounds?
To understand how artists may behave when they are deployed into communities under a failing social contract, we must come to think of them as a class, a Professional Art-managerial Class.I am not referring here to the profession of arts management but rather suggest that artists have become professional project managers. The first step in ascribing a class consciousness to artists is to consider their group affinity as recipients of a distinct type of training: the MFA holds a certain mystique to outsiders which separates the in-group from the out-group.Lennart G Svensson, ‘Occupations and Professionalism in Art and Culture’, Professions and Professionalism 5, no. 2 (2015). Artists have access to shared knowledge and because much art education concerned with social practice follows progressive tenets, socially engaged artists can be united by a shared political outlook and aims.
The increasingly widespread access to art school education and its rarefied status leads me to consider artists as a contemporary mass elite, even though this term is highly unpopular among practitioners concerned with democratising access to the arts. This class shows many of the hallmarks of the elites described by Christopher Lasch in the 1990s,Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, History. Cultural Studies (W. W. Norton, 1996). in particular its opposition to the traditional bourgeoisie, heightened geographic mobility, and a sense of rootlessness associated with social obligations that can be rewritten arbitrarily. For curator Nicolas Bourriaud harbouring thoughts of the altermodern in 2009, these were all conditions for a new practice that set the artistic elites apart from other social classes. Paradoxically, societal relationships were the very material of relational aesthetics and the social practices that succeeded it.
What happens when aspirations of global mobility and unencumbered intellectualism meet the realities of fierce competition and institutionalised instrumentalism? By 2015, imagining oneself to be an altermodern citizen of the world meant, in the words of Prime Minister Theresa May, being a “citizen of nowhere”. Of course, May was not singling out artists, but she was contending with a liberal society that was oversaturated with cultural elites who refused to fall in line with their diminishing political and economic power. Something fundamental had happened in the past few decades: armies of expensively-trained graduates were spending their lives doing data entry for 10% above minimum wage and wondering where all their aspirations went. The easyJet fantasy of freedom had diminishing returns.
Many of those disenchanted graduates were artists. The growth of the visual arts sector and its art schools in the past twenty years has led to an overproduction of elites, a phenomenon described by the historian Peter Turchin.Peter Turchin, Ages of Discord: A Structural-Demographic Analysis of American History (Beresta Books, 2016). Elite overproduction has been characteristic of developed liberal societies in which the supply of university graduates has outpaced the growth in cognitive industries. The result is the oversupply of highly skilled workers who end up underemployed and underpaid.
If this sounds familiar, it is because there are many more artists in Western economies than there are good jobs for artists. The arts industry is in unfaltering denial of this imbalance as it argues for never-ending expansion, but it is no secret that the majority of art school graduates struggle to survive in an ecosystem that thrives on a steady flow of new, cheap talent. To add to the shared political orientation ingrained in them by the art school, artists are now bound together by their material experiences that involve the balancing of personal, social, intellectual, and artistic interests with subpar working conditions.
The Unprofessional Managerial Class
If low wages are one of the side-effects of this imbalance in the supply and demand of labour, another is the artificial expansion of art’s remit beyond its traditionally occupied realms. With this come questions of artists’ preparedness to address issues that are not primarily aesthetic but they are not news: debates over the art’s true commitment to politics have raged at least since the French Surrealists declared themselves anticapitalistic in the 1920s.Abigail Susik, Surrealist Sabotage and the War on Work, 2021. What is different today is the sheer size of the art world and the staggering number of art professionals. How many social practice artists are there in the world today? Tens, hundreds of thousands? How many more curators, outreach workers, publicists?While I concentrate on the UK in this text, interest in social practice is now globally universal. Even political systems like China’s have made space for socially engaged art. See, for example, M. Wang, Socially Engaged Art in … see more
By the time there are more artists in the world than there are HR managers, it is no longer adequate to understand the class politics of this group by referring to their individual practices alone. Indeed, it is the practices that are shaped by the class interests of the practitioners. In that light, art’s interest in fields as diverse as school education or political campaigning is driven by the protectionist logic of a guild or a cartel. In other words, artists, and in particular those artists who operate outside the commercial art market, have become a professional-managerial class of their own. And as they acquire class consciousness, the preservation of their elusive grip on power becomes their key interest.
This may be difficult to swallow, so consider instead the ‘class’ formation of human resources managers, the ultimate exponent of the professional-managerial class. As the practice of HR management has matured, HR managers have formed guilds, research institutes, and lobby groups. Their guilds guard entry into the profession by demanding that aspirants undertake costly training. Imagine, next, that despite this barrier, human resource management attracts so many aspirants that with time, the number of freshly qualified HR professionals vastly outstrips the demand for them in business circles.
How might the HR guild react to this scenario? Unless the economy expands and brings with it new employment prospects, all HR managers would be looking at a drop in wages. The guild could try and dissuade the trainees from pursuing their careers, except that that stands against the principles of their profession. Another solution could be to raise the status of HR management and thus artificially expand the demand for it within existing businesses. What if it suddenly became ‘more equitable’ for an HR professional to mediate all employee holiday requests? What if the workplace canteen came under the aegis of staff ‘welfare’ and now required new managerial processes that gave work to endless committees? Would it be so very difficult to convince workers that HR personnel were indispensable to the provision of bike racks in the office? Wouldn’t more senior HRs be needed to manage their juniors, too?
It is obvious where this ‘HR Karenism’A phrase I borrow from Geoff Shullenberger, ‘HR-Karenism and Its Enemies with Malcolm Kyeyune’, Outsider Theory, 2022., https://outsidertheory.fireside.fm/hr-karenism. is going. In a world where HR managers decide how many HR managers are needed and why, everything becomes a matter for HR and HR becomes critical to everything.Indeed, this is borne out even in the evolving terminology of HR: the practice used to be called ‘personnel’, then ‘human resources’. Now, HR managers are responsible for ‘culture and people’. The parallels with social practices’ … see more In the first instance, such manipulation of the market does expand the employment prospects for HR professionals but in the long-term, wages tail off as businesses confront their soaring HR bills. So as more HR officers grind away at increasingly meaningless forms of intermediation, their work satisfaction, and indeed their power over the office, diminishes. Despite, if not because of its success, the professional-managerial class is left feeling bitter and disenfranchised.
Between Bohemia and managerialism
But if the HR manager makes a living by mediating between the employee and the employer, why shouldn’t a social artist do the same by standing between local government and social housing dwellers? The function of both professions in their respective value chains seems arbitrary but it does not always appear to be wholly negative. The problem in this practice of profit extraction is that the various forms of capital that the managerial elites and artists trade do not originate with them. HR does not, contrary to its name, stand for human resources, it merely collects a premium on the concept. Social artists do not have a monopoly over the social. They do not even have a monopoly over art.
Nor are the artists themselves the target beneficiary community of their social practices. How disempowering must it feel to be providing cut-price social services, knowing that a social worker would be both better and better-paid? The Professional Art-managerial Class’ response to this sorry situation has been to reframe itself as a working class. Multiple attempts have been made by scholars to rehabilitate the idea of artistic work as labour.Leigh Claire La Berge, Wages Against Artwork: Decommodified Labor and the Claims of Socially Engaged Art (Duke University Press, 2019); Danielle Child, Working Aesthetics: Labour, Art and Capitalism, Radical Aesthetics-Radical Art … see more There is even a magazine called Arts of the Working ClassI contributed to AoWC twice and both times I felt pressured by the editors to portray artists in a positive light. whose editorial manifesto seems to be that all artists, save perhaps for those class traitors who sell their wares in the art market, are the deserving working class.
But the Professional Art-managerial Class’ grip on what the working class is just as loose as the PMC’s. How much do university-educated creatives who work with some of the world’s most prestigious cultural institutions have in common with truck drivers or farm labourers? Indeed, the discourse of diversity, access, and representation in the arts has been fashionable of late, but for all its claims, the art school and the art world remain thoroughly middle-class in origin.S Friedman and D Laurison, The Class Ceiling: Why It Pays to Be Privileged (Policy Press, 2019). This means that when the artists present themselves as synonymous with the deserving community,I acknowledge that this impulse is not unnatural; I recall using a similar argument in an application for public funding circa 2009. the working classes who are ostensibly the beneficiary targets of social practice interventions are nowhere near to call them out on this bluff.
And yet, the precarity of the gig-economy that now plagues the working classes is nothing short of artistic fantasy. Ask an art school undergraduate and chances are that they’ll gesture at the creative freedoms of the Romantics or the aesthetic appeal of Bohemian lifestyles. The prospect of living ‘down-and-out in the art world’s capitals’ is so alluring because it promises to make good of the failed promises of liberal individualism. But it won’t be long before the same art student will have to confront the brutal realities of their fantasy, the interests of their client communities, and the managerialism of the institutions and liberal capital that they embody.
This class plight has the very same destabilising effect on communities and their ability to self-determine that Lasch saw in the lot of the wealthy ‘global’ elites. Turchin’s conceptualisation of elite overproduction accounts for the financial instability of the PMC and extends Lasch’s dark prognosis directly to their feet. The overabundance of elites is a burden on society and the economy because a growing proportion of society devotes itself to forms of unnecessary or non-productive labour. More, in a backlash against their material conditions, the same elites are driven to undermine the very relationship between social classes. For the Professional Art-managerial Class, the class logic is clear: as long as artists despise the bourgeoisie, there are doomed to emulate it. And if they despise the working class too, they want nothing more than to portray themselves as revolutionary class heroes.
La communauté, c’et moi
If artists have succeeded in convincing themselves that they are the communities, then the slogan ‘nothing about us without us’ takes on an expanded meaning. When artists claim to be the arbiters of what benefits communities, they exert oversized control over the social conditions of growing aspects of society. This may lead to positive changes, no doubt, but we only have the artists’ word for it: the social workers and educators who could have held artists’ ideas to account are long gone.
In this world of few checks and balances, the next logical step for the PAC guilds is what Martin Kyeyune described as ‘selling fire insurance’. Where the managerial elite has no legitimate claim on the production value chains, it can always turn to extortion.At first, this took place within the practice of art itself: consider the meteoric rise of the contemporary art curator in the first decade of the century and the rebalancing of power that this caused within the artistic sphere. But this couldn’t … see more Having forcibly inserted themselves into the processes of community-making or influencing public opinion, artist-managers are naturally incentivized to manipulate their subject’s interests until they serve their own too. The mechanism by which this happens is illusory and artists and their institutions will downplay it by pointing to debates on the ethics of social practices. But the effect is demonstrably that artists call the shots on whether a community’s interests are legitimate through the prism of their own interests and that artists determine if a political opinion is acceptable by checking if it serves their own class agenda. For evidence, one needs only to look to the gentrifying work of the architectural/artistic practice Assemble or the artistic class’ univocal opposition to Brexit. There can be no social or political art that opposes the artist’s politics. The power that the elite hold over the social need not even be made explicit. As Kyeyune jested, a veiled threat like “nice enterprise you have here, it would be a shame if someone called it homophobic” will suffice.Shullenberger. The artist-manager, therefore, holds the ultimate control over what shape politics takes. Could a world built under such conditions not serve the art-managerial class?
In my community garden, I have often been asked to make decisions or to adjudicate minor conflicts over the ownership of tomato plants. I attract the respect of the community not because I have earned it but because of my class association with the artists, now long gone, who founded the garden. It is hard not to notice how disempowering such dependency on a managerial class is to working-class communities. If my neighbours feel beholden to the likes of me over access to the vegetable patch, it is no wonder that many like them feel ‘left behind’ in more important liberal power negotiations.
What happens here is the very opposite of the ‘big society’. It may be that a community once capable of self-determination had lost some of its charms under the conditions of neoliberal isolation, but the state-appointed big society mediator run off with the means of political reproduction.
Seeking rent on cultural capital
The Professional Art-managerial Class’ logic of protectionism promises a profound shift in the allocation of power in favour of the artist. But even this has had severe limitations: what good is prestige under capitalism? In a world where the exploitation of capital resources is the only alternative to labour, artists can hardly be blamed for trying to turn their status into profit. The guild offers some ideas here: why not lend out scraps of your cultural capital for interest?
Oliver,I changed the name and some details to spare my friend embarrassment. an artist I know runs a project space on the social housing estate adjoining my community garden. Few of the locals understand why he chose to open an art gallery so far away from the art world’s better-trodden paths. It all started with good intentions but after a few years of enthusiastic programming and creative experimentation, Oliver appears to have lost his former interest in staging exhibitions. It’s hard to tell why: perhaps the locals’ bewilderment at seeing contemporary art next to a pizza joint was not what he wanted. Today, the project space is more often rented out commercially than it is programmed by its owner.
But even though Oliver now has no artistic dialogue with the architects, fashion designers, or artists who occasionally lease his space for exhibitions or events and even though they pay market rents, he likens his role as the landlord to that of a community elder. So confident is he in his beneficence that he demanded that local authorities support his enterprise as a work of essential public merit. The supreme irony of this story is that before Oliver took control of the space, it was provided by the local council as a pop-up venue to an unfunded amateur community craft group, free of charge.
One may judge Oliver’s initiative for its complicity with processes of displacement and gentrification and thus disqualify him from the membership of the revolutionary class. But if the artist can extract rent on cultural capital, can he also collect cultural capital on physical property? It is telling the one time that Oliver’s gallery space was rented by a group of young black artists – a demographic in high demand for any art organization – my (white) friend boasted about his community-benefactor publicly role with double his usual zeal.
Back on the vegetable patch
Easy as it is to caricature, the discreet charm of the Professional Art-managerial Class is irresistible: no number of essays on the ethics of social practice can render a whole class immune to the temptations of resource extraction or status-seeking. And it is in times of crisis that the campaign of strategic intermediation which the artistic elites have been embroiled in for decades becomes most graspable and most profitable.
Sometimes, this is because art is particularly adept at capturing excesses in symbolic capital. This was the case, for example, during the Covid lockdowns when the initiative Artist Food Bank Network spent as much attention branding their no doubt commendable work as art as they did on feeding those in need. Other times, the PAC may be far more protectionist under the guise of benevolent solidarity. Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, to take one poignant example, has given rise to no end of initiatives organised by artists for other artists. Art schools in Germany and Finland have opened their scholarship programmes to Ukrainian artists and residency projects across Europe have offered studio spaces to Ukrainian curators as a matter of priority.Biedarieva, Svitlana. ‘Funding, Shelter and Emergency Resources for Artists Affected by War in Ukraine—and How You Can Support Them’. The Art Newspaper, 4 March … see more. There is, of course, nothing wrong with these gestures per se and neither are they extraordinary.For example, Jewish communities in the UK have collected money to help Ukrainian Jews seeking refuge in Israel. But why not, at a moment of acute stress, ‘artists for accountants’ or ‘artists for the elderly’? Or, echoing ‘art for all’, why not ‘artists for everyone’? Seeing their members under profound existential stress, the artistic elites are united by shared class consciousness and are drawn to close ranks. This, surely, is the making of a social class.
In the end, everything comes down to the soil. After Russia annexed Crimea, the Ukrainian artist Nikita Kadan became the Western art world’s go-to spokesperson for his country. His 2014 workLimits of Responsibility captured the peculiar symbiosis of protesters and vegetables during the Maidan protest as some of the long-term demonstrators in Kyiv’s main square turned the very ground they occupied into a produce garden.Nikita Kadan, Limits of Responsibility, 2014, installation, sculpture, metal, painted wood, earth and vegetables, 36 colour slides, 3 book facsimiles, 2014.
Kadan’s installation and photographs play out the Euromaidan movement’s relationship to land, to a homeland, as a resource that nurtures those who look after it well. Could Kadan’s portrayal of Maidan’s ad-hoc community-building in which he is an observer-participant be any further from the managerial control of my garden’s community artists? In the wake of the ongoing supply chain crises and the impending cost of living crisis, my entitlement to enjoy my community garden’s harvest may yet become more than symbolic.
I borrow the title from Buñuel and from Shannan Clark, The Making of the American Creative Class: New York’s Culture Workers and Twentieth-Century Consumer Capitalism (Oxford University Press, 2020).
While I concentrate on the UK in this text, interest in social practice is now globally universal. Even political systems like China’s have made space for socially engaged art. See, for example, M. Wang, Socially Engaged Art in Contemporary China: Voices from Below, Routledge Research in Art and Politics (Taylor & Francis, 2019).
Indeed, this is borne out even in the evolving terminology of HR: the practice used to be called ‘personnel’, then ‘human resources’. Now, HR managers are responsible for ‘culture and people’. The parallels with social practices’ evolving brands are stark.
Leigh Claire La Berge, Wages Against Artwork: Decommodified Labor and the Claims of Socially Engaged Art (Duke University Press, 2019); Danielle Child, Working Aesthetics: Labour, Art and Capitalism, Radical Aesthetics-Radical Art (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019).
At first, this took place within the practice of art itself: consider the meteoric rise of the contemporary art curator in the first decade of the century and the rebalancing of power that this caused within the artistic sphere. But this couldn’t be the end and the average curator soon found themselves retracing the steps of a bored human resources manager.
In the fourteen months before England’s ‘freedom day’ last July, I had had what they call ‘a good war’. Like many middle-class professionals, I found working from home a pleasurable change, enjoyed the intrigue of the rule-of-six, and made more use of my community garden than ever before. Even if the succession of lockdowns and releases put a significant strain on my social relationships, I had it easy.
But by the Autumn, I started noticing that the pandemic has had some profound effects on me and my peers. Everyone somehow become too tired, too slow to engage with many of the freedoms that the summer had brought. Even before the news of Omicron hit, I sensed a mood of general ambivalence: any plans we made seemed tentative and often dissolved into thin air. By December, this ambivalence turned into downright reluctance as the fear of the disease struck again in a well-rehearsed pattern: stay home, stay alone, save yourself. It is as though a year of relegating social interactions to video calls, of plans large and small being abandoned last-minute, of safety-driven affairs, and lives lived by the presence of a single line on a lateral flow test had done some damage to the fabric of sociality itself. Who would have thought?
Part of me couldn’t mind any less. Before the pandemic, my relationship with the social world could generously be described as misanthropic. I find groups and cliques impenetrable and have perfected social awkwardness to an art. Perversely, however, I have always longed to be the centre of attention, a desire that I satisfied by hosting an endless string of dinners, parties, and salons whose pretence would make Madame Verdurin blush.
After nearly two years out of action that suppressed even that social drive, what could be better than the return of my customary New Year’s Eve’s Eve party, held on 30th December many times previously and memorable for much more than its awkward date? Surely, I know no end of people who, having spent the autumn reacclimatising to the routines of theatre outings, concerts, or gallery openings would be just as keen to resume our private bourgeois rituals too. What time better to throw caution to the wind?
No sooner had I sent out the first invitations a month in advance that I realised things would come to a head. The replies started arriving, ranging from the bizarre but understandable “we feel too Covid-conscious to be in a crowd, despite our young age and fully-boosted status“ to the mildly aggressive “I think it’s irresponsible to have a party in the middle of a global pandemic but I hope that you have a great evening.” Fine, I neither wanted to make anyone uncomfortable, nor scared, but equally I felt convinced of the importance of resuming sociality before we had all lost the ability to relate to one another. Then came the more beguiling responses from four separate friends whose social media feeds had been full of Covid-safetyism and advocated for an Omicron lockdown who revealed that they would not attend because they were, against their own advice, holidaying abroad. One friend claimed they would be out of town, despite knowing that I knew this not to be true. A colleague regretted that they were staying in their bubble in case their child was to see grandma the following week. Another preferred to stay in and work on their PhD ‘this year’. A few others had slipped away from London for good without any fanfare. Then came the requests: one guest wanted to know if I’d ask every attendee to declare their vaccination and test status. One asked for the names of everyone on my guest list. Another one still declared that they wouldn’t want to take part in a libertarian rally, perhaps confusing an evening of drinks and dancing for a Texan anti-mask protest.
And so, as in Ginsberg, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked”. After twenty or so such colourful regrets, I begun to interpret any excuse as a symptom of a silent but widespread malaise that affected the already-rippled social fabric of the capital. More of my invitees than ever before simply did not reply, giving me another indication that community connections had somehow become even more optional. This continued: five more guests cancelled the day prior revealing that when they had originally accepted, they did so in anticipation of a new lockdown that would render their excuses for them. One owned up to running their private test-and-trace operation and, despite not testing positive for Covid, declined to attend my party because they were in touch with someone who had five days prior. They went on to suggest that we could see each other some weeks later, but only outdoors. Finally, there was the friend who got dressed and ordered a cab before changing their mind and texting “I’m sorry, I just can’t face it.”
The psychological grip that the pandemic continues to hold over so many of my peers seems akin to post-traumatic shock disorder. On the surface, many of us have been just fine and relatively few have suffered the profound distress that affected whole classes of the population that have been forced to work harder than ever before just to stay afloat. I know barely a handful of people who caught Covid before Omicron, fewer still that felt it badly, and only one who had lost a family member. No one I know has admitted to actually suffering from the isolation of lockdowns or job losses or has even complained of being disoriented by the overstimulation of case numbers or scientific predictions.
The Covid trauma of the metropolitan middle-classes comes from something far more difficult to treat: the profound realisation that, despite its early promise, the pandemic has only accelerated the disenfranchisement in the polis. As the professional pessimist Slavoj Žižek observed, if the greatest act of love for many us is to stay away, this is enough to bring about new depths of suspicion, fatigue, and confusion in the already alienated liberal elites.Slavoj Žižek, Pandemic! COVID-19 Shakes the World (New York: Polity Press, 2020). What Žižek failed to appreciate, however, is that the pandemic had only temporarily tricked many into believing that the world’s communal suffering would inevitably lead to some profound change in the relationship between individuals, societies, and the state. The camaraderie of ‘clapping for heroes’ or the novelty of checking in on distant relatives on Zoom has long given way to resignation and a profound sense of disorientation that, to many, can only be resolved within the confines of the smallest of social bubbles. And perhaps for those of us who rightly prioritised families and immediate environments in the moment of acute crisis, to continue to do so before receiving the all-clear is a rational choice.
There is something in this logic, however, that makes a perfect catch-22: the green light can only come about through negotiation in the communal, public sphere and this public sphere cannot be constituted until the all-clear is sounded. Stuck in our bubbles, we cannot negotiate, debate, agree, or disagree. Sooner or later, we stop being able to think altogether. That this is the case should be clear from the partisan nature of the responses to the Omicron wave: one can either be a lockdown-loving liberal or a libertarian anti-vaxxer. Never shall the two meet on the opinion pages of the Guardian or the Daily Telegraph.
Is this how our social lives are to play out now, with each of us as either a public health villain or a saint in a state of perpetual sacrifice? Are we now reduced to feeling either guilt or indignation at the idea of pursuing social pleasure? Must we orient our social lives along the sharpest rendering of ideological divisions? Or would, perhaps, the reintroduction of the rudimentary forms of togetherness – or conviviality, to invoke the recently much-used term of Ivan Illich’sIvan Illich, Tools for Conviviality, Open Forum (London: Calder and Boyars, 1973). – such as the house-party where strangers and friends talk, drink, and dance for the evening on the understanding that they need one another’s presence to make their experiences worthwhile?
Back on my guest list, after quickly exhausting the list of my ‘faithful’, I reached out to a few acquaintances whom I hadn’t seen in over a decade. I invited a couple whom I knew only from social media interactions. I implored close friends to bring anyone else they could. Out of concern for what was advertised as a party with dancing turning out to be a masked ball of the wring kind, I even invited some whom I expected would instigate needless arguments with others. In all, I invited over a hundred people to bring together a group of thirty guests at my Eve’s Eve party, the lowest success rate on my record.
And, boy, was it as glorious as it was nothing special. We came together, we ate and drank, we danced, we talked. It was as though nothing had changed even though everything must have. In-between the as-ever awkward ‘how do you know the host?’ and the inevitable wine spillages, we acknowledged that this very simple communal experience meant more than many others in the past. For the first time in my career as an incorrigible social animator-manipulator, I had to do nothing at all for the cast of this social theatre to perform their chorus, they all just worked it out by themselves.
Who were the renegades who broke through the ice of social isolation? Anyone and everyone. There were the couple of academics who, despite being held hostage by their son who needed to clear his Covid test to travel the following day, decided to book a hotel room and to lose themselves in the company of others. The friend who despite already having four entries on his vaccination card had cancelled his own Christmas party two weeks earlier out of fear of infecting his parents, now beamed with relief, exuberant, talkative, interested in everyone. A friend who brought a married couple that had obviously suffered for months from being deprived of an audience for their interpretative dance routines. There was the anti-masker artist who had Covid twice but didn’t want to be consumed by the risk. The writer who didn’t want to leave at all until long after the music had stopped. The tall German who, between swirls above the dance floor, advocated compulsory vaccination and compared Covid to the Blitzkrieg. The American who charmed everyone with his ballistic speech patterns and simply got on with the business of interacting with others as it pleased him. They all laughed, talked, someone cried, someone got into an argument at the very moral tension of the situation we found ourselves in. More seems to have happened than had happened in months of social media posts, online talks, or op-ed columns.
And then there was my favourite guest, the Eastern European GP who spent the past months heading the Covid vaccination programme of a West London suburb. Of us all, she has seen the horrors of the pandemic the closest and the evening was the first social gathering she allowed herself to attend in over a year. In-between dance tracks, she continued to talk science to her increasingly more bemused dance-floor companions. But she was also the first one to reach that level of intoxication that breaks down the English reserve and awkwardness and together with the music, she told each one of us that we were beautiful and that she was happy to be with us. Never have I, as a host, felt so gratified.
I do not experience any joy at needing to write this text. The ideas that I am about to engage with are neither revelatory nor original. My exposition will be detailed and lengthy because the subject matter relies on nuance and the congruity of opposing ideas. My thesis, however, is simple: the scientific method is vulnerable to social influence, politics is socially driven even when it claims it isn’t, and under conditions of stress both, as well as our individual decisions, can be less rational than we’d like to believe. I feel that for some of my friends and acquaintances who are gripped by fear or ideological fervour even in the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic, an introduction to the ideas of the philosophy of science and basic ideas of political decision-making may be of some use. I will attempt to convince you that the rationality of science has been a myth that has led you, your government, and your scientists into a potentially perilous territory in which ideological decisions masquerade as benevolent reason.
“We have, of course, been following the science throughout the pandemic.” This once reassuring refrain from Prime Minister Boris Johnson, adopted and adapted by politicians and public health officials around the world, has had to do a lot of work in the past two years. It became the background for demands like stay home, save lives and get boosted now. It has also had to cover for a lot of politics, including at one time the prioritising of health over the economy, at another the opening of the economy despite ongoing public health concerns. Once, ‘the science’ justified delegating the responsibility for interpreting public health principles to individuals, shops, or opera houses, while at another it called for tight state control over daily life. Science has had to be flexible enough to allow for exemptions and excuses, as well as the odd media bust-up of politicians in Christmas party hats.
In as much as Johnson’s mantra has attracted widespread derision, its ongoing success in motivating public health policy points to a fundamental need that we all feel in navigating the second year of the pandemic: it all must have been for a reason. ‘The science’ did the demanding work of shaping the public realm but it also helped us all individually. We want to understand the pandemic in terms that relate to our rational understanding of the world, we need to see our reaction to it as reasonable, and we hope that by ‘following the science,’ we too are giving ourselves the best chance of coming out unscathed. Who decides to barricade themselves at home for weeks unless there is a good reason for it? Who wants their five-year-old to wear a mask in kindergarten unless a scientist suggests that they should? This is why ‘in this house, we believe that science is real’: without it, we could not account for our individual and collective behaviours.
Is there a limit to what we can expect from science? Would we know if we have passed the threshold of reason? How can we be sure that while shaping political and personal decisions, science remains independent, transparent, consistent, benevolent, unambiguous, and preferably easy-to-understand? These are some fundamental questions to ask of science that become even more crucial when ‘the science’ paradigm takes centre stage. I will hazard some answers. Yes, there is an end to any science of the day and politics permeates its boundary. No, we are no good at knowing when we are out of our depth and where we have abandoned reason. And no, again, we cannot expect science to answer our questions in a way that we ask ‘the science’ to. Not the questions we are asking right now, in any case.
Of course, this does not mean that the pandemic is a hoax or that the vaccination programmes are a conspiracy. The scientific method is not in trouble. However, it does mean that when you spent your Christmas lunch trying to out fact-check your vaccine-sceptical uncle or cited studies to argue with your brother about the effects of mask-wearing, you were relying on what is at best good taste in authority figures and at worst a naïve belief in how science works. And this is likely the case even if you happen to be an epidemiologist.
I am not merely accusing most of us of a profound collective lack of scientific literacy: the reasons are more difficult to overcome. There is a fundamental mismatch between the complexity of science, its public application, and how we individually experience it. We’re lost in ‘the science’ because there is a great distance between data, scientific theory, medical advice, public health policy, and finally, implementation. Each point of this value change involves uncertainty, error, belief and bias, potential for corruption and miscommunication, or may simply be subject to handling with a lack of expertise.
As a result, we are witnessing first-hand a breakdown between the complex nature of scientific practice and how we are individually and institutionally prepared to act on it. Consider the following sequence of questions, all of which have contributed to shaping our responses to the pandemic. Does 5G cause Covid-19? How does the vaccine work? Do lockdowns speed up or slow down the mutation of the virus? When a booster jab decreases the likelihood of hospitalisation by 70% but increases transmissibility two-fold, what can you learn about the new variant if you observe it within the conditions of a circuit-breaker lockdown? Would prioritising vaccinating everyone worldwide over boosting certain populations still have been a better idea, now that we know of the Omicron variant? What can you say about the relative benefits of prevention programmes of Florida and New York, given their different climates, population density and demographics, and different approaches to public service provision?
Each of these questions, either already answered or answerable in principle, relies on a different level of engagement with the scientific method and the predictions of a vast array of scientific processes. To understand how we may continue to make decisions under the conditions of uncertainty, three questions are relevant: does it matter if we understand the science, does it matter if our politicians do, and do scientists themselves know what they’re talking about? I will attempt to address these problems in reverse, beginning at the source of ‘the science’.
The Science doesn’t exist
Beginning with a consideration of the scientific method itself seems necessary given the proliferation of scientific and pseudoscientific claims that the pandemic has attracted. What we commonly refer to as science, put simply, is a set of processes described by Isaac Newton in the 17th century aimed at confirming theoretical hypotheses through observation, data gathering, and analysis, twinned with scepticism and neutrality towards any set of results.Newton, Isaac. Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica. 1st ed., 1687. This is the science we know from our school science classes in which we saw with our own eyes that a feather falls to the ground just as quickly as a stone in a vacuum tube and the science that allows a simple pill to alleviate our headaches. Simple, tested, observable, rational, and all the result of generations of iterative developments.
Seen in this light, science is the engine of progress, providing answers to ever more challenging questions. Indeed, the stories of medicine or engineering have inspired plenty of confidence in science’s ability to solve increasingly challenging problems. Science put humans on the moon. Science will, eventually, cure cancer. However, the idea that the scientific method as it is daily practised by thousands of researchers, theorists, lab technicians, and data analysts in a vast array of disciplines is in and of itself directed towards some greater good is naïve. In his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn suggested that the scientific method is incompatible with inevitable progress because any significant re-evaluation of an accepted scientific truth may at any point change the course of development.T S Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, ISSR Collection (University of Chicago Press, 1996). A decade later, Bruno Latour’s and Steve Woolgar’s observation of Laboratory Life suggested that far from being driven by some grand search for truth, scientists approach their work with the same prosaic attitudes and social pressures as the rest of us.Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts, 2013. Not much later, Peter Freyerband argued Against Method that the understanding of the social constructions of knowledge posed a significant threat to the ideal of the scientific method altogether, proposing that it be replaced with a theory more familiar from the humanities.Paul Feyerabend, Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (Atlantic Highlands, N.J: Humanities Press, 1975). Together, such accounts should have changed plenty of how those of us who do not practice science try to understand it. For those, like me, who have been trained in science, it should have drastically altered the way we are taught.
These observations point to a certain fallibility of the scientific method: scientific disciplines are not any more isolated from human, social, or political influence than their counterparts in the arts and humanities. At a base level, science remains a practice of judgment based on the evaluation of clear-cut evidence. Evidence, however, takes many shapes and forms, presents different degrees of confidence, makes itself subject to some types of scrutiny more readily than others, and is always subject to human manipulation. This inescapably means that in its iterations, the scientific method relies in part on trust, that is on knowing which knowledge and expertise, including their own, a scientist may take for granted, and where they are better off deferring to others or reserving their own. Nathan Ballantyne’s recent work on epistemic trespass and humility suggests that many may struggle with finding the right balance in making such calls, not because scientists are more prone to error than non-scientists, but because much of contemporary scientific research relies on the synthesis of the knowledges from multiple disciplines and fields.Nathan Ballantyne, ‘Epistemic Trespassing’, Mind 128, no. 510 (2019): 367–95, https://doi.org/10.1093/mind/fzx042.Nathan Ballantyne, ‘Recent Work on Intellectual Humility: A Philosopher’s Perspective’, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 5 September 2021, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17439760.2021.1940252.
The scientific disciplines also have their internal politics. Take, for example, the competition for funding of various research endeavours, or the competition for publication and attention within the community itself. Science, like other branches of knowledge, thrives on novelty, bold claims, and a degree of glamour. That this is prone to produce deeply flawed knowledge should be evident from the 1989 cold fusion hoax as much as it is from the ongoing replication crisis.
In normal times, none of this warrants excessive levels of scepticism towards the body of science itself. Science remains a reliable way of describing the world and the method’s relationship with itself and its products is such that any erroneous knowledge produced through mishap or manipulation can be rectified as such knowledge is applied at scale and in the long term. It may take time to discover that certain medical interventions do more harm than good but the principle by which such rogue ideas were designed is the very same one that eventually invalidates them. Once knowledge has been tested, applied, and tested again multiple times, it eventually passes into the realm of scientific fact, even if its journey wasn’t straightforward.
Time on a longer scale also allows for the discovery and eventual correction of other biases present within scientific disciplines that may be more difficult to observe within the context of the laboratory. For example, Andrew Curran has argued that the relationship between the Enlightenment rise of the scientific method and the colonialism of the British Empire was more than a unilateral application or misapplication of scientific ideas by non-scientists.Andrew S. Curran, The Anatomy of Blackness: Science & Slavery in an Age of Enlightenment, Johns Hopkins paperback ed (Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2013).
But there is little space for these reflexive processes to set in a rapidly changing situation. There has barely been enough time at any stage of the Covid-19 pandemic for scientific communities to reach ordered consensus, hence their repeated reminders that the virus remains relatively unknown. Under normal conditions, scientific discovery requires collaboration, corroboration, and verification, processes that take place through experiments as much as they do in the notoriously slow process of academic publishing, international conferences, and cycles of research funding. During the pandemic, scientific opinion has been solicited continuously, with high stakes, often without sensitivity to the context in which such opinion can be understood. In this context, scientists may be incentivised to rely more heavily on judgment and less on verification than they would have otherwise.
Unsurprisingly, there is no guarantee that two scientific inquiries testing the same hypothesis may produce identical results just because the world’s lives depend on it. For example, two studies evaluating the relative merits of ‘natural immunity’ against vaccination have both found strong evidence (by factors of 5 and 13), but in opposing directions.Ari Schulman and Brendan Foht, ‘Is “Natural Immunity” Better Than Vaccination?’, The New Atlantis (blog), 20 December 2021, https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/is-natural-immunity-better-than-vaccination. Comparing the two requires a significant amount of scientific proficiency in the art of reading scientific papers, plenty of background knowledge, and a fair amount of goodwill towards the assumptions the studies’ authors make on behalf of their research. Science communicators Schulman and Foht expend a couple of thousand words on explaining why the studies do not compare like for like even if that may be what their headlines indicated. We don’t know for sure whether it’s better to catch Covid or to avoid it through vaccination because the studies were not designed to answer such questions definitively.
What about those recurring questions that scientific advice in many European countries appears to be very confident in: do lockdowns save lives? To pick the best solution for the next phase should then be easy and the scientific recommendations of lockdowns have been forthright. What the scientific answers to such an important question lack is falsifiability: because we cannot at the same time run an experiment in which Italy was tightly locked down and another in which the virus is allowed to rip, we cannot know the precise impact of the intervention with absolute certainty. We know that France and Italy locked down early and tightly, we blamed the British Government for waiting too late, and we envied the Swedes for coming out relatively unscathed without imposing any onerous measures, but because a great number of factors such as levels of social trust and the population’s compliance are difficult to account for, any comparisons are likely to be heavily caveated in ways that may or may not sway their validity in repetition.
Finally, what happens when study results are wrong but are not treated seriously enough to re-examine other findings? A recent study promoted by the Centres for Disease Control suggested that masking kindergarten children was of proven clinical benefits,Megan Jehn et al., ‘Association Between K–12 School Mask Policies and School-Associated COVID-19 Outbreaks — Maricopa and Pima Counties, Arizona, July–August 2021’, Centers for Disease Control and Protection; MMWR. Morbidity and … see more despite gaping errors in the authors’ analysis being pointed out by a mere journalist.David Zweig, ‘The CDC’s Flawed Case for Wearing Masks in School’, The Atlantic, 16 December 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2021/12/mask-guidelines-cdc-walensky/621035/. In the UK, the chair of the modelling committee of the scientific advisory body SAGE has all but admitted that their attention is focused on pursuing only a limited range of scenarios and outcomes, leaving little space for potential falsification.Fraser Nelson, ‘My Twitter Conversation with the Chairman of the Sage Covid Modelling Committee | The Spectator’, The Spectator(blog), 18 December 2021, … see more
Again, these examples do not invalidate the nature of scientific discovery, nor do they throw the validity of epidemiology as a science into doubt. Plenty of the questions I posed here have unambiguous answers: we know how the virus transmits, we know what lockdowns do, we can make predictions about mortality rates and treatment options. These aren’t mere speculations. However, the degrees of scepticism I have proposed here range from the purely scientific to the political and I present them here to underline the difficulty of conducting and acting on science under strain and pressure. There is a sour paradox to a method that relies on experimental verification for the very constitution of its ideas and theories that it is required to make binding predictions that affect lives in their very first application. In principle, even this will be overcome by the scientific method, given sufficient ability to develop iterative protocols and a reduction in the degrees of complexity. Meteorology is one example of this process working well: the intricate weather patterns of the world are described daily by a large but finite set of observations, models are developed, predictions are made and their predictions are eventually compared with the weather states observed the following day. The work of thousands of scientists, the expense of considerable computing power, and the collaboration of many nations have meant that we are now pretty good at telling the weather. Still, people continue to die in hurricanes and floods, whether these are predicted or not.
Politics does not care for evidence
Preparing for the devastation of a flood is not unlike coordinating the resources of a country in response to a pandemic, in as much as they both rely on translating scientific predictions into action through a process of politics. One of the early paradigms of the pandemic was the stark choice between saving lives and protecting the economy. This choice was presented as binary, as though the economy could benefit from an increase in the population’s death rates. While many critics rightly protested that such a dichotomy was false, the draconian nature of the early interventions such as lockdowns and travel restrictions effectively enforced that impossibility of imagining any half-measures. Governments worldwide have thus gone for all-or-nothing approaches: Stay home, Save Lives, Protect the NHS.
The theorist Keller Easterling has proposed that the unnecessary binary is a feature of a system that protects its hegemony.Keller Easterling, Medium Design: Knowing How to Work on the World (Verso Books, 2020). The binary is a political system’s retaliation against nuance, conflicting information, designed as a response to what it may perceive or project as the alternative of chaos and disinformation. Politics as we know it is, therefore, the perfect antithesis of the nuance of the ideal of the scientific method: it despises uncertainty, avoids verification, ignores the second opinion.
Politics is, however, also the perfect companion to science. In a democratic state, the function of politics is to evaluate scientific advice and act on it under the political mandate afforded to the state. And what is the mandate of the state? Is it the protection of its people? Is it the preservation of life in the immediate term, the utilitarian goal of maximising the collective happiness? Or is it, in practice, the maintenance of good scores on the matrix of economic, social, and cultural such as GDP, the divorce rate, or museum attendance numbers?
Because answers to these questions are often as elusive as those of science, even narrowly defined politics is a practice shaped by bounded rationality,Paul Cairney, Understanding Public Policy: Theories and Issues, Textbooks in Policy Studies (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019), chap. 5. that is the limitation imposed by the sheer difficulty of weighing up the pros and cons of all the possible policy options, predicting its outcomes, and remaining accountable to the electorate within an electoral cycle. Politics, therefore, is a way of translating the complex recommendations of science through the prism of complex and sometimes conflicting imperatives and implementing them through imperfect mechanisms. It’s a terrible system, but we are yet to develop an alternative.
The bounded rationality of political decision-making stands in contrast with the ideal of evidence-based policymaking, which is a decision-making process that takes account of all the implications of its implementation. Evidence-based policy, in principle, delivers precisely what it purports to, never falters, and can account for its side effects. The closest we come to this in UK healthcare may be the role fulfilled by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) which evaluates the benefits of therapies against their costs to assess their viability as solutions for the NHS. Given the seriousness of the pandemic and our investment in the evidence-driven scientific solutions to it, should we not insist that politicians now more than ever follow the evidence trail in designing policy responses? Isn’t it good that Johnson’s Cabinet has been led by ‘the science’? There are multiple reasons for which the expectation of perfect rationality and evidence-responsiveness is a phantasy under current conditions. Firstly, the ideal of evidence-based policy is only useful as a frame by which to assess the failure of real political processes:Cairney, Understanding Public Policy. only a perfect technocracy would be able to follow the suggestions of scientists and statisticians and that at the cost of choosing its own objectives.
Secondly, there is scant evidence that our politicians understand the scientific evidence with which they are presented. It was widely assumed that in the early days of the pandemic, Donal Trump remained wilfully ignorant of the threat to public health and this led to sometimes comical disagreements between his administration and his medical advisor Anthony Fauci. The recent controversy over the quality of the data presented to the Government by SAGE has suggested that British politicians are far from able to maintain an ongoing in-depth understanding of all the advice, evidence, counterevidence, and interpretation they are required to absorb daily.
What may the solution be? Sam Freedman of the think-tank Institute for Government has called for a complete overhaul of how scientific advice is solicited and evaluated by government and media, an effort that would be enhanced by additional maths education for all.Sam Freedman, ‘New Approach Needed to Avoid Covid Data Disputes and Modelling Misunderstanding’, The Institute for Government (blog), 22 December 2021, https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/blog/covid-data-modelling. This proposal, as much as it is a step towards the paradigm of evidence-based policy, is strikingly unrealistic. Would it not be simpler to accept that the political decisions based on scientific advice are inherently political, that is that they involve judgment, the very faculty we elect politicians for?
Our collective refusal to understand the elusive nature of ‘the science’ allows us to blame politics and politicians for any adverse effects of their decisions, whether these decisions are rooted in scientific advice or now. When thousands of people died in the early months of the UK pandemic, it must have been because politicians ignored sound scientific advice. Conversely, when many more hospitality workers lost their jobs as the result of health protection measures, it was again the politicians’ fault, not science’s. With this pattern, we have erected the perfect buffer that prevents us from confronting the arbitrary nature of the pandemic and the subjective nature of political judgment. Might this be because we already know that the judgments all involve difficult trade-offs and we wouldn’t want to be the ones making them? Faced with an endless stream of advice, reliable or not, a lobby full of competing interests, a desire for self-preservation, and an ethical instinct, would any of us be able to make decisions that strictly ‘follow the science?’
Your decisions are less rational than you think
How do individuals navigate the scaling complexities and ambiguities of science and its political representations? When we access scientific information, how do we evaluate its veracity? What is the likelihood that any scientific information we acquire corresponds to the truth?
The last substantial review of public attitudes to science in the UK dates to 2019.‘Public Attitudes to Science 2019’ (Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, 16 July 2020), https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/public-attitudes-to-science-2019. At the time, the population displayed increasing confidence in science and appreciated its positive contribution to society. A falling number (43%), however, thought that the science they had learnt at school had any relevance to their daily life. About half believed themselves to be confident followers of scientific developments, but over a quarter admitted to not feeling clever enough. Those who felt better informed, generally were, although the majority did not understand how scientific research is funded. Only half of the population believed that the information they received about science was generally true, and some 36% didn’t know how to evaluate the veracity of such content. TV and radio maintained the most trusted sources of scientific information, with Facebook and self-initiated online searches following closely.
This is a frustrating position from which to enter a global pandemic. In the early months, media became obsessed with graphs and numbers, introducing the public to logarithmic scales, rolling averages, although stopping short of correlation coefficient and confidence indicators. The UK Government’s press conferences, likewise, ended in a chorus of ‘next slide, please’, choreographing the appearance of transparent and consistent science-led decision making. On the surface, the relationships between data, politics, and the requirements placed on the individual were clear: the higher the chart, the more severe the restrictions on daily lives must be. But it remains an open question if the UK public understood the data presented to them. Did they know what questions were being asked and which were omitted? What was so magic about the virus’ replication number r0? Why the rule of six, and why two meters between us?
Was it possible for anyone not entirely invested in investigating a whole range of data, studies, interpretations, and precedents to follow these issues in detail and adjust their behaviour to them accordingly? Given the complexities of the scientific basis of outbreak management and prevention I outlined earlier, I suggest that this would have been impossible for anyone but a highly trained statistician epidemiologist with plenty of time on their hands. For any layperson, it has been nearly impossible to understand the link between data and the action required of them, let alone to know why this link may have legitimately changed in time.
The paradoxical, if not sinister, part of the situation has been the Government’s outsourcing of the interpretation of public safety rules to individuals and businesses. While ‘the science’ was clear, the guidance remained vague and at points arbitrary, as though the levels of compliance were of little importance to their success. In the UK, the messaging reached a level of absurdity with a variety of threat indicators of were introduced and abandoned: who remembers the traffic light severity level system? As result, public attention was diverted away from the facts and figures to a practical, if not irrelevant realm. When, for example, bars could only remain open if they were serving food, the definition of a ‘substantial meal’ became the subject of media jokes without any connection to the health concerns themselves.
All this has undermined any possibility of the public’s understanding of the science behind the escalating and wavering measures imposed by governments. The incredible duplicity of this system is that it pretends to be neither authoritarian nor draconian while demanding the highest levels of compliance from the public. Whereas parts of the European Union have imposed strict requirements for vaccination passports or testing mandates as conditions for civil participation, the UK has avoided explicitly demanding that the public ‘to as they’re told’. Instead, though the constant reference to ‘the science’ that has become stripped of its truth-seeking function, the UK society has been conditioned to desire strict control measures lest the science enacted its revenge. And so in late 2021, public venues such as theatres and museums were left to decide for themselves whether mask-wearing should be compulsory or not, falling short of offering any new guidance. By then, the public attitude shifted towards a doctrine of maximum safety, all of the time. What did museum curators know about the Omicron variant that the Government’s scientific advisors did not?
Some have continued to cling to the notion of ‘the science’, picking arguments while armed with an array of facts and figures that have been easily accessible in just about any news outlet. This works well enough for a moment, as long as the choices are binary and simple. Do you want to convince someone that another lockdown is inevitable? The Guardian has a chart for that. Do you want to justify your dislike for wearing masks in public? The Telegraph lists some studies that will make you feel better. Do you want to learn about vaccine safety? Facebook will serve you some convincing pro and con data. None of these sources, however, will take into account any of the nuance, context, evolution, or indeed trade-offs involved in making individual and societal decisions based on the data they present. The media sources, just like politicians, have reverted to type and usually argue from ideological principles for which science is merely convenient background. At closer quarters, I am yet to see an individual deploy science against the public health position I had expected them to adopt knowing their general political alliances.
Where do we go from here?
This lengthy analysis will be of limited use, lest it helps us to acknowledge that the relationship between science and political or individual action has the potential to be largely arbitrary and that the circumstances of the pandemic have made it highly likely that it indeed has been. I do not believe that even those of us who think they possess a degree of scientific fluency that would equip them to make sound judgments in principle have been able to make those judgments appropriately under the conditions of diminished trust and transparency. This is an issue distinct even from Ballantyne’s problem of epistemic trespassing to which practical solutions exist and consist of careful examination of the credentials and competences of experts from whom we draw advice.David Dunning and Nathan Ballantyne, ‘Which Experts Should You Listen to during the Pandemic?’, Scientific American Blog Network, 8 June 2020, … see more
The problem we face now is one of programmatic disinformation and mistrust. The volume of conflicting information and the cognitive load required of any individual trying to make sense of it is such that they are unable to proceed without resorting to belief, simplification, or confirmation bias, often unconsciously. No wonder that many have interpreted any resistance to vaccination as a sure sign of antiscientific irrationality associated with the worst conspiracy theories, while those sceptical of the cycle of lockdowns have come to regard the safety-first faction as a cult. The net result is that whoever can make claims of controlling or following ‘the science’ is likely to command public consent.
None of the accusations I have levelled at science, politics, and society helps us in making the daily decisions that determine our health as well as the overall shape of the public sphere that we inhabit. My concern at the shape that politics takes if we simply comply and do not meaningfully engage with the interface of science and ideology is that it is likely to reaffirm a hegemony that we can ill-afford; as Easterling observed, the presence of conflicting information builds up a Teflon coating on which the very rationality we hope to achieve slips and slides.Easterling, Medium Design. Opting out completely is a tempting option, but it also requires a sacrifice of rational principles.
I, for one, am ready to admit that many of my own ‘rational’ decisions during the pandemic have been driven by ideological convictions. I elected to take all three of my vaccine doses so far partly because I have had plenty of experience with other vaccinations and was satisfied that I could, should I have wished to, closely examine and understand their efficacy and safety profiles. I am in split mind over masks, finding them unnecessary outdoors, inefficient in venues when large groups spend long periods, but potentially worth the inconvenience for the protection they offer in short encounters at the corner shop. Where I know that my convictions remain purposefully unconcerned with science is the matter of vaccination passports or mandates that I oppose on purely political grounds.
I do not propose these as model behaviours but instead suggest that in many of the decisions we now face, understanding the fallibility of science, our lack of understanding of its detail, and the pervasive nature of ideological belief may help us to collectively arrive at a new understanding of what our goals are and how we may go about achieving them.
Megan Jehn et al., ‘Association Between K–12 School Mask Policies and School-Associated COVID-19 Outbreaks — Maricopa and Pima Counties, Arizona, July–August 2021’, Centers for Disease Control and Protection; MMWR. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report(blog), 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/70/wr/mm7039e1.htm.
My generation of gay men has no memory. The infinite scroll of torsos and faces on Grindr alone is enough to induce short-term amnesia twinned with an oblivious sense of déjà vu. My generation of gay men has no memory because it cannot imagine what it could have been like to be gay in the time of their fathers since, for the most part, their fathers weren’t gay. My generation of gay men has no memory because its teenage rebellion conflated age, heterosexuality, and parenthood as complicit evils. My generation of gay men born in the 1980s has no memory because it grew up with no role models and no blueprint from which to build a future of its own. My generation of gay men has no memory because it descended from the last generation to be driven by an all-pervasive death drive for whom passing on memories was of little use.
I’m being melodramatic here: the mid-life’s crisis invites reflection on one’s place in the succession of generations. Judging by what I know of my parents’ generation, the easiest way to assert agency over one’s time is to condemn succeeding generations as lacking in character and to position oneself as the true rightful inheritor of the generation before. For my generation of gay men, the former will be no struggle. The latter, however, requires becoming acquainted anew with a generation whose time came and went leaving a mere caricature as a historical record.
However much in demand they may be, some stories simply don’t age well and are forgotten even while they’re still in progress. It’s hard, for example, to imagine that the historiography of the Covid pandemic will be of any more use to future generations than that of the Spanish Flu has been to us. Other stories may be forgotten precisely because the reach a terminus. As Michel Houellebecq said of Covid-19: this virus is “banal”. “It’s not even sexually transmitted.”‘World Will Be Same but Worse after “banal” Virus, Says Houellebecq’, France 24, 4 May 2020, https://www.france24.com/en/20200504-world-will-be-same-but-worse-after-banal-virus-says-houellebecq.
For my generation of gay men, that inheritance is also a story of an epidemic, the AIDS crisis that plagued the last two decades of the 20th century. It’s a story that has been told many times (from Angels in America to Philadelphia), recently in the revival of Larry Kramer’s 1985 stage play The Normal Heart. Kramer’s text, in with the main character Ned Weeks is based on the writer’s own experience as an AIDS activist and founder of the advocacy organisation Gay Men’s Health Crisis, tracks the acute epidemic politics. The play brings together the fears and desires of the New York gay community fresh from the Stonewall victory, the moral and scientific ambiguity of medicine, and the political apathy and conservatism of power that came together in the city in the early years of the 1980s. Each element and character takes a moment in the spotlight to reveal their ultimate fallibility and powerlessness when faced with the unknown killer: Ned is so angry that he cannot bring his peers along with his cause, his heterosexual brother harbours a lingering anxiety at Ned’s life, the city hall’s indifference barely masquerades hostility, and the doctor Emma Brookner’s compassion saves no lives and has no sway on the politics of research funding. There’s plenty of grief, rage, and resentment, but Kramer gives us little to navigate these with because at the time the play is set AIDS barely had a name.
As for Ned’s friends, the gay men who joined with him in the activism of pickets, op-eds, and support switchboards, they are portrayed as less terrified by the prospect of sexually transmitted death than by the choices it requires of them. When medicine’s only realistic solution is to advocate for a moratorium on the unprotected and promiscuous gay sex that defined the liberated gay culture of the metropolis, the play’s characters display an ambivalence rooted in their sexualities and their ideas of personal freedoms as much as in their social status. In the ensuing tactical battle between the fiery Ned and his more diplomatic activist compatriot and Wall Street banker Bruce Niles, it becomes apparent that the distinction between freedom and death is not equally clear-cut to everyone. Kramer never says it explicitly, but it seems that he is aware that some of the men whose lives Ned tries to protect may be under the spell of an extinction drive. Frustratingly, the text is unable to engage with the causes of such a fundamental misunderstanding, investing instead in externalising all the blame and anger that accompanied the horrors of the early days of the epidemic.
The politics of remembering
Why revive this script now? In the age of Covid, the questions of risk, freedom, individual and communal responsibilities, and the difficulty of translating a limited understanding of a threat into conviction politics are resonant and there are moments in Ben Cooke’s staging that make thinly-veiled gestures to 2021’s pandemic politics. Except that when they raise a laugh from the audience, it is for their Twitter-like banality: disappointingly, many of the questions that Kramer raised have seen more nuanced treatment in the public sphere in the past two years than he grants to his characters in the heat of a crisis. As a pandemic morality tale, The Normal Heart has been superseded by current events.
This staging of The Normal Heart was planned before the pandemic and perhaps it reveals the interests of a generation of gay men that influences, if not controls what appears on the bills of London’s theatres. Judging by the tearful reactions of the plays’ audience, for the most part as young and as dashing as the casts and for whom the AIDS crisis could well have been news, the story is compelling as a piece of costume drama. But as a cultural narrative that forms a lineage of ‘queer history’, the script feels at best a historiographic exercise that may as well be set in Tudor England. Can my generation and the next who narrowly escaped having to understand what AIDS is contend with the fact that only twenty years ago, HIV was an inextricable part of gay sex and gay life and that if there was such a thing as a gay community, HIV was its primary concern?
The artefacts left behind by those who died in the AIDS crisis like David Wojanrowicz’s memoirs Close to the KnivesDavid Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (New York: Vintage Books, 1991). or Derek Jarman’s elegy BlueDerek Jarman, Blue, 1993. appear as rarefied relics that can hardly resonate with the post-Millennial mainstream. Some recent attempts to write a gay history for the present have failed because they rely on a shared understanding of a traumatic moment that most born after 1990 don’t remember. The Inheritance, a sprawling 2018 stage playby Matthew Lopez loosely based on E. M. Forster’s Howards End that over six hours lays the crisis over the generations that survived it, failed to convince Broadway audiences even despite the odd reference to Grindr contemporaneity. Can one blame Lopez, only a couple of years my senior, for failing to own Forster’s 1910 novel and the ghost of a generation he never knew as his own?
Living outside history
Like me, Lopez likely navigated his coming of age between a series of activist victories and cultural shifts. Perhaps, like me, he led a rarefied existence that displays what is now termed ‘privilege’ and that by the time he was ready to make any declarations about who he was, his world was ready to accept him. I, for one, seem to have repeatedly been at the right place at the right time so as to just remain almost unaware of the struggles around me.
By 2017, when activist groups were celebrating the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, effectively the moment of gay liberation in the UK, I felt new guilt for having contributed so little to the fight. I have excuses: I was at boarding school in the 1990s where nothing of any sexual nature was promoted, so Section 28 passed me by. When the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho was bombed in 1999, I was sitting exams and concerned myself with little else. At university, the dreaming spires made everything seem perfectly cosy. Civil partnerships and gay marriage came before I had any use for them. And AIDS? By the time I moved to the proverbial Sodom that is central London, the combination of developments in the antiretroviral treatment of HIV, the by then decades-long safer sex campaigns, and the nature of my own sex life made this a marginal worry.
Unlike those friends who are ten years my senior or whose lives didn’t spare them the anxiety or grief of HIV, my coming-of-age trauma was purely individual: I had to be reminded that I was thrown out of my family home by a homophobic father before I stopped blaming myself for not having been a member of Act Up. Such experiences, present as they are in reality and in the Lopez script, are no matter to build a generational legacy on.
The death drive and eros
Must it, therefore, come down to storytelling such as Russell T. Davies’ high-energy, high-colour TV drama It’s a SinPeter Hoar, It’s a Sin, 2021. which, unlike The Normal Heart, place the AIDS epidemic in the middle of a community for whom living and dying are more than intellectual or activist pursuits? Davies spoke of the ‘joy of representation,Nick Levine and Russell T. Davies, ‘It’s A Sin Creator Russell T Davies: “Cast Gay as Gay”’, AnOther, 20 January 2021, … see more the idea that it is the subjects of a story that can reproduce it best and perhaps the fact that the cast of his TV series became cultural gay icons for the Instagram generation attests to this. But It’s a Sin shows something that The Inheritance doesn’t and that The Normal Heart narrowly shies away from: it depicts the confused death drive that ruled the behaviour of some gay men amid all the chaos, loss, pain, and fear of the AIDS epidemic. In Davies’ account, the gay men are for the most part left to do the dancing, fucking, and dying, while the care and activism is the domain of the straight female friend.
Houellebecq’s suggestion that sexual transmission is a culturally ‘redeeming’ feature of a virus may play into the idea of the death drive, a concept developed by Freud as standing in opposition to eros, the propensity towards reproduction and survival.Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, trans. C. J. M. Hubback, 4 (London, Vienna: The International Psycho-Analytical Library, 1922), https://www.bartleby.com/276/. Freud explained the death drive by reference to traumas like war or simply characterised it as a pathology, but he was not concerned with homosexuality here. In his terms, however, the gay experience lies at the very mutual contradiction of death and eros: gay sex, a manifestation of the life-affirming drive shared by most humans, does not ultimately lead to procreation and therefore foreshadows the end of a genetic line. For countless gay men, whether participating in sexual reproduction by other means, gay life meant social ostracism and persecution, another form of extinction.
These biological and social conditions were in force long before AIDS, although perhaps the epidemic was the last moment when the gay death drive could take a decisive cultural turn. In his theorisation of the queer death drive in No Future,Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Series Q (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004). Lee Edelman argues that not enough attention was paid to the ‘culture of death’. When he cites Kramer’s call “to redefine homosexuality as something far greater than what we do with our genitals”,Larry Kramer, ‘Gay Culture, Redefined’, New York Times, 12 December 1997. he finds naïve the implication that gay men should return to being understood as ‘artistic’ or ‘gentle, loving people’ worthy of communing with eros.
Where the death drive found recognition and inevitably spiralled out of control was in the lens of the news camera. Edelman recalls that the story of Andrew Cunanan, a “gay club kid turned serial killer of (mostly) gay men” who included Gianni Versace gave the media a sort of ecstatic jouissance. One commentator observed that because “young men who have come face to face with the knowledge that their own lives are blighted and doomed”, they would “now want to experience the rush of killing in more traditional ways.”Edelman, No Future, chap. 2.
And from here, it’s only a short trip to the likes of Dennis Cooper, whose novels are filled with acts of sexual cruelty that would turn Jean Genet’s stomach. Cooper’s antiheroes make death the most explicit and irresistible of aphrodisiacs and for many of them, the act of killing is synonymous with being killed. I am again, however, again unable to judge the historiographic value of such fictions, in part because the names of Cooper’s characters in Frisk,Dennis Cooper, Frisk (New York: Grove Press, 1992). that of the serial killer Dennis and of his would-be victim hustler Pierre, bear an outsized sentimental significance for me. No wonder that in French, the orgasm is referred to as une petite mort. Todd Verow’s 1995 film adaptation of the novel, thankfully, changes some of the names to make for a mesmerising exponent of the death drive; even though (or because) it makes no mention of AIDS, it offers a clearer and alarmingly compelling insight into the thrill of sexual annihilation than any of the mainstream representations.Todd Verow, Frisk, 1995.
Murder is a moral transgression reserved for only a few. AIDS, on the other hand, made the exulted act of sacrifice or killing accessible to all. For many years, the underground culture of bug-chasing, that is of HIV-negative men deliberately seeking unprotected sex to become infected with the virus, horrified onlookers. Who in their right mind would seek to contract HIV? Documentaries like The GiftLouise Hogarth, The Gift, documentary (Dream Out Loud Productions, 2003), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oN4w8e432_o. made explicit the surprisingly widespread nature of the practice: it wasn’t just a fringe ‘kink’ far off to the side of the Kinsey scale. Instead, all the predictions that Freud and later Lacan made checked out and as much as part of the bug-chasing phenomenon was driven by abandon in response to generalised anxiety, another part of it was inextricably connected to its erotic appeal. Risk is hot.
In the past decade, concerns over the spread of HIV have faded into the background as the key political concerns of the gay community. The availability of PrEP, the now near unaffected life expectancy of HIV-positive men, and the confirmation that well-managed infections do not transfer during sex mean that that HIV has become part of a general background of sexual health in the gay population. Social acceptance of gay lives is higher than ever. My generation of gay men that only glanced at the earlier crises in passing is now busy thinking about mortgages and marriages. Not many appear to have yet confronted the fact that they may not produce offspring. Edelman follows Baudrillard in suggesting that the lack of reproductive variation contributes to a state of stale sameness. I expect, however, that the above-average ownership of pet dogs that I have observed among gay men is only part of an ongoing transition to an existence where even the reproductive aspect of the gay death drive comes to an end, even if it is through simulacral reproduction. It’s not as though, as Nina Power observes,Nina Power, Non-Reproductive Futurism: Rancière’s Rational Equality against Edelman’s Body Apolitic. Borderlands, Jacques Rancière on the Shores of Queer Theory, 8, no. 2 … see more children are synonymous with politics.
The Straight Truvada
Was the death drive a product of circumstances that afflicted gay men for cultural reasons or is it somehow inalienable to male homosexuality? Assuming that Freud’s generalised diagnosis was correct, where does the drive manifest itself when the gay man gains more satisfaction as a perfectly formed neoliberal subject than as a sacrificial fantasist? In the DIS video UBI: The Straight Truvada,DIS, UBI: The Straight Truvada, 2018, video, 4’52″, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AcYdELt_gdc. Christopher Glazek compared PrEP to the contraceptive IUD that promised women liberation from the inevitability of reproductive biology, at the cost of turning them into economic subjects. “What good is a sexual revolution without an economic one?” The pessimism of the emergent generation of anti-capitalist activists represented by Greta Thunberg’s campaign Fridays for the future which bizarrely sees the future in the bleakest of terms suggests that your ‘the end is nigh’ placard may still come handy.But whereas Thunberg’s performance of the death drive is Instagram-friendly, the gay death drive was essentially a clandestine, closeted affair.
Perhaps the gay man’s death drive has migrated to other arenas of queer culture. If Kramer’s unambiguous fear of death has ongoing cultural relevance, it may be in the imagination of a new generation of the LGBTQ+ community. This forcibly assembled political community, distinct in many dimensions from the earlier generations of LGB rights activists, seems united by the belief that its members are subject to more extreme threats than its predecessors. Reports of hate crimes abound and contribute to the understanding that the risk of harm is an inalienable part of belonging.Libby Brooks and Jessica Murray, ‘Spate of Attacks across UK Sparks Fear among LGBTQ+ Community’, The Guardian, 29 August 2021, sec. UK news, … see more When it comes to death, it is trans activists who point to the shocking number of murders (43 in the first ten months of 2021 in the US alone)Trudy Ring, ‘Here Are the 43 Trans Americans Killed in 2021 So Far’, Advocate, 31 October 2021, https://www.advocate.com/transgender/2021/10/20/all-trans-people-killed-murdered-violence-2021-record-statistics. which one recently described as a ‘Holocaust’.Greame Massie, ‘Whistleblower and Transparent Creator Joins Hundreds in Netflix Walkout’, The Independent, 20 October 2021, sec. Culture, … see more
To echo the question I posed to bug-chasing gay men: who in their right mind would dare to put themselves at such great risk? It takes no great investigative effort, however, to understand that this new queer death drive is the most Baudrillardian of simulations: the harms and deaths mourned by survivors often act as mere symbols for events that may as well not have taken place. Stories of hate crime are rarely accompanied by context, such as the recent changes in statistical methods for recording what are in fact declining rates of hate crime in the UK,‘Hate Crime, England and Wales, 2019 to 2020’ (Home Office, 28 October 2020), https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/hate-crime-england-and-wales-2019-to-2020 nor do they correlate with surveys of increasingly liberal social attitudes.Eir Nolsoe, ‘International Survey: How Supportive Would Britons Be of a Family Member Coming Out?’, YouGov, 31 August 2021, https://yougov.co.uk/topics/international/articles-reports/2021/08/31/international-survey-how-supportive-would-britons-. A cursory Google News search of the names of trans murder victims reveals that the vast majority died for the very same reasons that cis-gendered people do: drugs, robberies, crimes of passion, sex work and that they die at rates lower than the general population.Georgina Lee, ‘FactCheck: How Many Trans People Are Murdered in the UK?’, Channel 4 News, 23 November 2018, https://www.channel4.com/news/factcheck/factcheck-how-many-trans-people-murdered-uk. Where a motive is identified as homo- or transphobia, it sticks out like a sore thumb.
The gay community has been complicit in perpetuating similar fictions too, for example, by clinging to the memory of the iconic 1998 homophobic murder of Matthew Shepard despite the significant evidence for its more quotidian motives of drugs and debt.Stephen Jimenez, The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard (Hanover, New Hampshire: Steerforth Press, 2013). Likewise, many may refuse to accept that the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooter Omar Mateen did not seek out gay men for his targets.Jane Coaston, ‘New Evidence Shows the Pulse Nightclub Shooting Wasn’t about Anti-LGBTQ Hate’, Vox, 5 April 2018, https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/4/5/17202026/pulse-shooting-lgbtq-trump-terror-hate. Even if seemingly unstoppable deaths have not always been myths as Kramer’s play bitterly attests and all are tragic, the lack of a particular ‘hate’ or biological cause that underlies them should bring some muted relief.
Much has been written about the deployment of vulnerability in the identity politics of the LGBTQ+ community, sometimes in needlessly combative terms,Madison Smith, ‘Neither Marginalised, Abused nor Vulnerable’, The Critic Magazine, 21 October 2021, https://thecritic.co.uk/neither-marginalised-abused-nor-vulnerable/. and it is no far stretch to suggest that a death drive simulation is an effective tool for creating community bonds and ensuring a broadly empathetic hearing in the public sphere. But as Edelman and Glazek suggest, the desexualised nature of today’s performed death drive is a distraction from the reality of the next obstacle with which the individualised sexual subjects must contend. The performance also risks ingraining a kind of infantile Romanticism in the at-risk subject, painting them as someone capable of flirting with death for everyone’s entertainment. The next chapter of this history should perhaps be written by Michel Houellebecq.
Even if my personal and limited reading of a history to which I barely bore witness, one motive seems unchanged: the heteronormative liberal dream of a country house and a life filled with love underpin The Normal Heart as much as they represent the desires of today’s LGBTQ+ activists. In Kramer, the only character who is allowed to remain apolitical is Ned’s partner, an attractive and successful fashion commentator. Ironically, he’s the only one we get to see die on stage.
Main image: Liz Carr and Ben Daniels in The Normal Heart, National Theatre, 2021. Photo Helen Maybanks.
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.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,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, MinisterPeter 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.
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.”‘#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.”‘Leading UK Contemporary Visual Arts Institutions and Art Schools Unite against Proposed Government Cuts to Arts Education’ (Contemporary Visual Arts Network, 2021).
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 dataCebr, 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,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,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.
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.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.A claim made by a theatre industry campaigner on Radio 4’s Today programme in September 2020. Don’t we have better arguments?
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.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.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.
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.
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.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.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.
The OnlyFans saga lasted a mere week. On 19 August, the service whose 130 million users brought projected sales exceeding $5 billion this year,Dan Primack, ‘OnlyFans Has Tons of Users, but Can’t Find Investors’, Axios, 19 August 2021. announced that it would move to ban explicit pornographic content from its platform. Until then, OnlyFans had been virtually synonymous with personalised pornography, offering a home to creators and consumers for 20% of the fees charged by porn stars for content: explicit videos, photographs, or chat.
In a matter of days, OnlyFans reversed its decision. It had ‘listened’ to the voices of its “diverse creator community” and saw reason. “OnlyFans stands for inclusion”, stated the platform as it announced that it found a way to continue facilitating transacting in pornography. A win for creators, a win for sex workers, a win for OnlyFans, and of course, for the banks.
There has been plenty of speculation over why OnlyFans made this baffling series of moves. The ban was one thing, but its reversal? Among commentators, two views have been prevalent: either OnlyFans understood that its original decision would cost them all their revenue, or the company had indeed listened to the creator community. One was a triumph of capital as reason, the other a win for the workers. But who forced whose hand?
Perhaps we have all been played. The narrative of corporate incompetence is compelling but inconsistent with the company’s fundraising and revenue diversification plans mooted already last year.Lucas Shaw, ‘OnlyFans Is a Billion-Dollar Media Giant Hiding in Plain Sight’, Bloomberg.com, 5 December 2020. That OnlyFans was “forced into U-turn by sex worker revolt” as the journalist Owen Jones suggestedOwen Jones, OnlyFans Forced into U-Turn by Sex Worker Revolt, 2021. sounds better still but is even more fanciful. Who controls the flow of money and surplus labour in social media and the gig economy remains an open question and how the two narratives coexist reveals a lot about the relationship between workers and capital in the content-creator game.
Contrary to the nostalgic view of a worker’s strike, to many now a distant memory of the heady 1960s semi-fictionalised in films such as Made in Dagenham, Nigel Cole, Made in Dagenham (Audley Films, BBC Films, BMS Finance, 2010). the industrial dispute of the 21st century may have little to do with labour itself. While strike action and pickets continue in traditional industries such as steel working or teaching, what does a worker in the more profitable creative economies complain about and how? A pithy example comes in the form of the public tears and anonymous complaints of the staffers at Penguin Random House who last year opposed the publisher’s decision to release Jordan Peterson’s new book on grounds of the psychological harm it would cause. Like OnlyFans, the publisher was “open to hearing [their] employees’ feedback” before carrying on with its plans regardless.Manisha Krishnan, ‘Penguin Random House Staff Confront Publisher About New Jordan Peterson Book’, 24 November 2020. Granted, this event did not have at its roots any threat of loss of livelihoods or of deterioration of working conditions, but it was a direct result of an excess of emotion. As the historian of strikes and riots Joshua Clover suggests, it is a surplus – of danger, information, possibility – rather than a shortage that leads to unrest.Joshua Clover, Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings (Verso, 2016), chap. 1.
Perhaps for well-remunerated tech bros or media types, the worries of auto workers or contracted-out cleaners are difficult to parse. But the gig creator exists in a liminal space with the promise of autonomy and wealth on the one hand and the risk of exploitative disappointment on the other. With only a small proportion of contributors able to make a living and a mere handful living the dream, how does a workforce come together and what demands does it make of the capital infrastructure that it relies on? With the disparities in the experiences, rewards, and even aspirations of the thousands of creators, it is hard to imagine anything resembling a general strike. Would OnlyFans, having announced an effective end to the sex game, respond with anything other than well-crafted PR even if the talent staged a full-blown walkout?
The relationship between the gig worker and capital is key to this question. When Uber or Deliveroo make material changes to the working conditions of their drivers and riders, the collective bargaining power of the workers is significant because all are likely to be affected. A twist in the pay-calculating algorithm may not affect all workers in the same way, but it will affect them all. For the creative gig worker, statistically most likely to be earning almost nothing from their hustle, the incentive to withdraw labour is marginal.
In a winner-take-all economy, the successful players depend on the sacrifices and turnover of those less lucky, so this is nothing new. But OnlyFans’ decision to stop trading in porn is interesting because it could have inadvertently brought a new degree of equality to its community of creators, albeit by getting rid of those who did not make the grade. Surely, the platform could have found ways to comply with regulatory demands on behalf of its top earners while shedding the bulk of those unbankable, unprofitable contributors.
This may well have been the intention: OnlyFans had signalled its desire to attract a wider variety of creators from fields such as sport or music to match the offerings of competitors but had only limited success. If it accomplished this goal, it would become a respectable media company whose valuation of over $1 billion could easily attract further growth investment and a golden exit for its CEO Tim Stokely. With OnlyFans’ reputation as the web’s peer-to-peer porn merchant, the new capital was difficult to access. Paradoxically, without the revenue from explicit content, the business was far less attractive to investors – a point that most media analysis has overlooked.Alex Konrad, ‘Inside OnlyFans’ Limited Venture Capital Options—And How VC Would Handle An OnlyFans 2.0’, Forbes, accessed 27 August 2021.
So OnlyFans went on strike. It wasn’t the workers who threatened to walk out, it was the factory. And for once, the factory was not even trying to negotiate new ways of exploiting its workers, because OnlyFans’ success does not lie in skimming off excess labour from sex performers. OnlyFans went on strike to demand more capital.
The announcement and its reversal could be simply an elaborate publicity stunt that cost OnlyFans nothing but legitimised its brand name in the world’s news media, turning it into a household name. Like Penguin, OnlyFans is now known as a business that listens to its workers. Its aspirations to serve a diverse community – one that includes porn stars but also, now that you’ve heard of it, musicians, and Instagram celebrities – will win it approval in parts of the investment community that it desperately needs.
What did the workers do? They hardly had any time to act, but even if they did, it is questionable whether OnlyFans could respond differently. Any longer and the platform would have looked like it did cave to public demand: a bad look for a business seeking investment. Had it proceeded with the ban, OnlyFans would likely lose out to its competitors and that it must have understood from the outset. Perversely, that latter sacrifice could well have made its creators’ working conditions better.
On 16th August 2021, the world’s media gawked at images of Taliban fighters in Kabul completing their takeover of Afghanistan. There was no customary footage of armed fighting or sound of gunfire. Instead, we saw the Taliban command in an impromptu photo-op in the former Afghan president’s office. In the city, the Taliban fighters explored an amusement park, filming themselves on a children’s merry-go-round and riding around in bumper cars. Elsewhere, the fighters pictured themselves trying out the facilities of a hotel gym. These scenes defined this bloodless coup that reversed the course of a decades-long effort by the US and allied forces to bring democratic rule to Afghanistan.
Unlike in previous watersheds, little is momentous about these images. No statues were toppled, no blood was shed, no buildings were destroyed. None of the poignancy of Lee Miller in Hitler’s bathtub either. Only the Taliban fighters’ wonder at the land they inherited with all its traces of war and conflict, but also with symbols of the civilisation that the Americans tried to instil in the region. Those symbols: fairground rides and treadmills. Disneyland.
In a series of essays published in 1991, Jean Baudrillard suggested that the Gulf War never happened.Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, trans. by P Patton (Indiana University Press, 1995). Extending his attention to the media presentation of the war effort, including an infamous CNN interview in which US soldiers admitted to obtaining situational information from television news rather than from their military command, Baudrillard concluded that the Gulf War was an act of violence performed for the benefit of the cameras and spectators in the invading country. Whatever atrocities were committed on the ground and however many Iraqi lives were lost, the Western news networks presented a pre-scripted, edited, and decisive simulated image of the event that perfectly resembled what their audiences understood to be a war and a justifiable war.
For Baudrillard writing at the onset of the conflict, the Gulf War was the first example of a hyperreal war, a simulation that needs no reference to any reality. What the TV screens showed, as Michel Auder documented in his 1991 video work Gulf War TV War – a montage of news clips and reports marking the launch of Operation Desert Storm – was an idea of war conceived entirely between the White House press room and the TV studio, bookended by advertising breaks. Whether these images had anything to do with the reality in Iraq soon became irrelevant.
Thirty years on and at the end of a different war – although not in an altogether different simulation – the images of the Afghanistan conflict lack the bombastic commentary of Auder’s TV archive. US and allied forces have long stopped relying on the emotional charge of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Reflecting on the drift of the (in Baudriallrd’s take) placeless war from Iraq to Afghanistan, the poet and journalist Bilal Khbeiz noticed that the images that now represented the conflict were completely silent.Bilal Khbeiz, ‘The Dead Afghani before the Camera and before Death’, trans. by Walid Sadek, E-Flux Journal, 57, 2014]. Unlike the documents of previous wars, photographs of dead Afghans needed commentary to acquire meanings. When did this child die, how, where, why? These answers are necessary, else the images cannot compete with the myriad other images and the simulations to which they contribute. Baudrillard’s war game finally become a fully-fledged simulacrum: not only did the representation of the Afghanistan conflict not match its reality, but there was also no reality to speak of.
The fundamental unsustainability of Baudrillard’s take lies in the fact that simulating war is the privilege of an invading force imbued with a tactical advantage, sophisticated military technology, or at the very least an imagination that can no longer distinguish reality from a sign that it is presented with. In the Gulf conflict, the US and NATO allies had access to all three. That the Iraqi people did not is well documented, but even the documents of their reality are liable to the logic of the hyperreal. For example, Monira Al Qadiri’s 2013 video Behind the Sun – an intense, flame-filled record of the burning oil fields of Iraq overlaid with archive readings of Arabic poetry – gives into the ideas of ‘petroculture’, a mode of engaging with the region’s reality through the prism of the economic interests of those who would map and simulate it. In Khbeiz’s words, the Afghan’s place before the camera now only serves to simulate his death.
Baudrillard saw terrorism as an abnormal reaction of an overly powerful hyperstate that turns against itself. In the hyperstate, terrorism is inevitable, but as a side-effect, it could temporarily provide respite from the march towards the simulacrum. But just as he was pessimistic about the revolutionary potential of abreactions available to individuals, such as escapes into drug use, Baudrillard was conscious that terrorism was unlikely to break the simulation for good. The Al-Qaeda terrorists of 9/11 seem to have known this: the attacks on the Twin Towers (which Baudrillard described as emblems of the “divine form of simulation” already in 1976Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, ed. by Natalie Aguilera, trans. by Iain Hamilton Grant, Published in Association with Theory, Culture & Society, 2nd edn (SAGE Publications, 2017).), were staged as though for the camera and played perfectly into the simulation script. After only a momentary respite, the images of 9/11 advanced the simulation rather than broke it.
What images will we be left with after this latest act in the Hyperwar on Terror? Media commentators have been fast to juxtapose the harrowing images of Afghans attempting to flee Kabul falling to their deaths after hopelessly clinging to the fuselage of US evacuation aircraft with the photographs of Americans jumping from the Twin Towers on 9/11. Perhaps this pairing would have been correct if we didn’t already know that the terrorist glitch in the unfolding simulation was only temporary. Baudrillard would instead see the 9/11 images alongside the videos of Taliban fighters at the fairground and in the gym, because only those images – documents of a version of hyperreality that the US occupation exported to Afghanistan – can remind us that there once was a reality outside, just like he argued that Disneyland reminded Americans that America was not, in fact, Disneyland itself.Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. by S F Glaser, Body, in Theory (University of Michigan Press, 1994), pp. 12–14.
Class may be the ultimate English taboo. Not long ago, the Labour Government minister John Prescott’s television documentary‘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 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,Littler, J. (2017) Against Meritocracy: Culture, power and myths of mobility. Taylor & Francis. the politically-sited The Tyranny of Merit,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 LaddersTodd, 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 mythBrook, 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 PrivilegeFriedman, 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.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 demandsHeinich, N. (2007) Pourquoi Bourdieu? Gallimard (Le Débat). – the Sewell report comes to mind again. Slavoj ŽižekŽižek, 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
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
Cultural battles have been going on for decades: Chapman and Ciment’s encyclopaedia of manifestations of culture wars runs into some 1,200 pages. 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).
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, 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.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. 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 4chanideologues,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.
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, 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’.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.
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.
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.’
NFTs are the least of art’s problems, but the crisis of value has no end in sight
If you are bored with lockdown and you happen to own an iPhone, chances are that you spent a few minutes on Clubhouse. And if you did, you heard at least one endorsement of NFTs delivered with the zeal of a televangelist on a fundraising drive. NFTs will change art, the gospel goes. Or they will at least change the market for digital art. And even if they won’t, you should be buying, or selling, right now.
Let’s gloss over the technical descriptions: NFTs are both staggeringly complex and stupidly simple. In essence, an NFT is no different from a certificate of authenticity traditionally issued by an art gallery as part of a sale. This certificate named the author of the artwork, confirmed that it was unique and that the certificate was the agreed means of verifying those assertions. NFTs do bring some new features to this already perfectly-functioning system: they can be verified publicly, guaranteed to be unique, and they can contain additional contractual conditions. They are also algorithmically attached to the digital artworks they describe. An NFT, in short, is a fancy, forgery-proof certificate of authenticity embedded in a piece of digital art, which makes it a perfect companion to items that may have previously been uncertifiable, like GIFs, videos, or Tweets, whether these art or not.
If that is all, why has the art world gone NFT-crazy? With even Christie’s in on the game, there must be something to it. Well, perhaps. The rise of NFTs may do something to establish internet memes as a commodifiable art form. It may move significant amounts of money between a certain type of collector and a certain type of artist. It may even start a new trend that will keep multiplying like Yayoi Kusama’s dots. But contrary to all the hype, NFTs are not a new paradigm that will make art better, more democratic, or fairer for artists. They won’t do that because the fundamental idea behind them brings together the worst aspects of the art world with the parts of the financial markets: a pyramid scheme and a speculative bubble. In fact, the art market – if not art itself – has long displayed those tendencies and the arrival of NFTs simply brings them into sharper focus. The centrality of speculation and the mirage of the asset stability is so ingrained in art’s practices that these terms make little sense to anyone not involved in the blue-chip end of the market.
The Dutch tulip bulb craze was the original asset bubble and deserves space on the art school syllabus. In 17thcentury Amsterdam, it was the consensus that some tulips were vastly more desirable than others. The supply of bulbs was limited by unspoken agreement, but the bulbs themselves had negligible use value. How, then, could the bulb trade get so out of hand that it made and destroyed fortunes? The trick was, in fact, incredibly simple and relied on only a few small manipulations. Some market participants were able to influence the discourses on quality far more than others. Bulbs could appear scarce if a market participant hoarded a collection, or used their influence to discredit the value of other bulbs. And when a few speculators paid over the odds, they seeded a trend that increased bulb prices for everyone, turning future traders into de-facto speculators.
How much does the art market resemble the tulip bulb trade? Certainly, art markets have displayed bubble behaviours in the past, a habit that becomes apparent whenever demand dries up, as it did after the 2008 financial crisis, for example. Left to its own devices, art constantly pushes at the bubble wall: what is and what isn’t good art is subject of debate in which power and money play no small role, art isn’t scarce, but good art is scarce by definition, and the carefully manufactured confusion between use value, exchange value and price turns even the most amateur collector into a speculator.
The cardinal difference between a tulip bulb and an artwork is that while most tulip bulbs are more-or-less the same, art can take many forms. If the art bubble does something that that Dutch horticulturalists didn’t, it is that in art production, all artworks can appear to be commodities, even if most are not. Every artist, whether they paint or produce community events, does so in a system that suggests that demands that their art has a symbolic exchange value that is distinct from its price.
How the symbolic value relates to the economic value or to the cost of labour required to produce the work is the market’s will. Jeff Koons’ balloon dogs are higher in economic value than in any symbolic aesthetic attributes – and it is the existence of a buoyant market for them that in turn imbues them with cultural value. By contrast, the prices paid for most video art, social practice, or art activism are far lower than the symbolic value that is vested in them by artists, curators, museums, and critics. To date, the intellectual and critical efforts behind the intangible art market orphans, have done little to boost the economic value of those practices to a level that would facilitate a true market.
All the same, it would be naïve to assume that this symbolic value of non-market art is not subject to the same inflationary bubble mechanisms that the exchange value of traditionally traded art forms experience. It is precisely because symbolic values are hardly ever exchanged for cash that this mechanism plays itself out: any artwork can claim ever greater intellectual value than the last. This is why art can claim to be essential, world-changing, or life-saving and imply that these attributes should translate into hard currency, even if they never have. Arguably then, it is artists that are the greatest speculators, each art school graduate hoping that either the monetary or the symbolic value of their work will pay off their investment.
If the symbolic value of non-tangible art seems abstract, it is the cryptocurrency world that elucidates it. Mainstream blockchain innovations such as Bitcoin share much with art practices: both have values that relate to the cost of their production (in the case of cryptocurrencies, that is the energy cost of performing algorithmic transactions), and both are exchanged at a very different value in the open markets. The value of Bitcoin, like with the tulips, rises because more people are willing to buy it than to create and sell it. This happens to be the case with most goods and their prices, except that with Bitcoin, £38900 turns into no physical asset and no contractual promise of value. In the eyes of many, this makes cryptocurrencies a classic pyramid scheme: only those investors who got in at the beginning gain, and only so if latecomers also lose. Back in the art market, to pick just one example, the endless parade of Damien Hirst’s spot paintings would have rendered them worthless by the fiftieth version if not sooner. But however many spots Hirst made, it remained in the early collectors’ interests to coerce others to join the investment bubble. Judging when to sell and how quietly is the pyramid builder’s art.
For now, there’s no shortage of believers, but the chorus of “this time it’s different” that usually accompanies a bubble is part of all cryptocurrencies’ marketing strategies. Some aspects are indeed different: crypto coins are genuinely scarce and the consensus is algorithmic, not speculative. The lack of a stable guarantee, however, is just as obvious as in tulip garden: a Bitcoin represents nothing other than itself, its value is not fixed to any other commodity, nor is it backed by a state bank that can overcome those problems by fiat.
But what if cryptocurrency did represent something, preferably something exciting and confusing whose value is difficult to ascertain? Here comes art! If NFTs render crypto dealing more palatable by attaching an ‘asset’ to the coins, art, or whatever the Bitcoin community could get their hands on easily, is the asset of choice. The deceptive magic of NFTs is that the items they represent – memes, animations, screenshots – can be claimed to be collectable and therefore valuable.
In truth, even if there is some aesthetic or symbolic value in a Nyan Cat screen grab, it has no characteristics of an asset unless an ecosystem that supports the exchange and exploitation of the item is in place. Most NFTs, therefore, are about as collectable as those porcelain figurines found advertised in weekend newspaper supplements. And even then, it is hard to discern whether it is the artwork or the marketing jargon of the blockchain that is of any use. Certainly, NFTs can guarantee scarcity, but when they do that in a pool of ‘assets’ that is limitless in supply, this only morphs a sphere into a pyramid.
But the issue is not just the subjectively limited quality of NFT art. Rather, it is that art can claim to create value from nothing and never be called to show its hand. On the blockchain, art is willingly being used to con market participants by underwriting financial investments with an asset value to which art has no access. In a sense, all of the art market is based on this deception: for some artworks to act as commodities at the auction house, many other works have to trade their symbolic value on even more opaque markets. Maybe none of this matters: gullible investors in NFTs will either love their meme art or be disappointed when their bargain collections fail to appreciate. Some artists may burn their fingers, but no more than they already do in trying to enter the mainstream art market.
Art’s tendency to trade claims of value outside of its own field without check is, however, profoundly worrying, and it has caused material damage already. In the past three decades, for example, certain socially-engaged art practices undertook to replace aspects of the welfare state, offering symbolic value in place of previously available economic value. In the UK, as a tiny proportion of the diminishing state funding for social work was diverted into community art commissioning, art has continued to make claims about its tangible values that are based on symbolic value alone, arguably leaving its communities short-changed. The Bitcoin bros may or may not be less deserving of sympathy, but if art continues to operate within this illiquid system of value, it has to prepare for the inevitable crash.
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, BourdieuBourdieu, 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.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.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.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.
If artists are workers and workers are artists, who’s standing in solidarity with whom?
Art should be a welcome contribution to any crisis for its cathartic effects alone. In 2020, we would have benefited from social practice, art’s formal intervention into the realities outside itself, too. Sadly, theatres closed first and it was the community-facing projects that museums and galleries abandoned in the chaos of the pandemic. Institutionally supported social practice made a retreat from the frontlines just when the demand for it was greatest. It thus came down to artists themselves to independently deploy the symbolic and material resources that are at their disposal. After all, plenty of non-art social groups and movements do this without institutional mandates.
Art, in its recent history of neoliberal instrumentalisation, has hardly ever faced autonomy of such scale with so much at stake. Arguments about the questionable mechanisms of the social and educational turns that deployed artists to create community gardens and children’s playgroups come to mind. How, then, to prioritise now? Hearteningly, solidarity emerged as a solution to this artistic dilemma. New York’s Queens Museum became a food bank. Turin’s Castello di Rivoli turned into a vaccination centre. The Whitworth gallery adjusted its mission statement to directly respond to social inequities emergent in the pandemic. Brooklyn Museum and numerous New York theatres opened their doors and became sanctuaries for protesters.
Plenty of artists continue to aid home-schooling efforts with Instagram-live appearances or independently organised Zoom classes. Solidarity itself became a motif in artist interventions like Peter Liversidge and his son’s tribute to healthcare workers in East London that rallied and amplified the community solidarity with frontline heroes. All of these actions are commendable, but it seems important to account for the circulation of cultural, social, and economic capitals involved in the new notions of solidarity in the arts, not least because art has a demonstrable tendency to expand into the domains of civil society whether it is invited or not.
Are we witnessing a solidarity turn in art production that transforms food banks into art projects and museums into healthcare providers just like the performance turn transformed community walks into art events, or the social turn commodified community cohesion as a currency of social practice? When the feminist art organisation Idle Women distributed four hundred food growing kits to families last spring, they insisted that their action was not art. In contrast, the artists of the Artist Food Bank Network couldn’t be more central. Does it matter that Liversidge’s solidarity also produced a handsome piece of inventory for his commercial gallery and more publicity than a careers’ worth of exhibitions?
Solidarity from a pedestal
If this line of inquiry seems cynical, there are plenty of less ambiguous examples. The British sculptor Marc Quinn’s intervention A Surge of Power, thestatue of Black Lives Matter activist Jen Reid that replaced slave trader Edward Colston on his pedestal in Bristol caused universal outrage. Quinn was widely condemned for seeking cultural capital under false pretences – to profit from a social and political struggle that was not his own while claiming that his action was an act of solidarity.
In The Rules of Art, Pierre Bourdieu offers an unflattering view of artistic production.Bourdieu, Pierre. 1996. The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field. Stanford University Press. He argues that art joins social struggles not out of altruism, but because such social movements’ needs for symbolic production drive new demand for artistic representation. Put crudely, Bourdieu implies that art as propaganda is profitable regardless of whether the artist believes in its cause, and whether the cause is successful in reaching its goals. Bourdieu caught Quinn red-handed: since the artist’s true intentions are unknowable, it doesn’t matter whether they were underpinned by genuine solidarity with the protests. Quinn received considerable media attention for his action; did BLM benefit?
Black Lives Matter attracted other art allies, too. In December, the movement took the top spot on Art Review magazine’s Art Power 100 list, a place usually reserved for a blue-chip gallery dealer or a powerful institutional curator. The citation suggests that BLM’s inclusion reflects its importance to the art world at large. It remains unclear how the movement (presumably unable to attend the award ceremony due to more pressing commitments) would make use of the power and resources that such allegiance would offer. Who is using whom?
The question of who benefits from the excess cultural capital generated when art engages in social interventions has long gone unresolved, and to ascribe callous motives to all artists would be at best defamatory. A recent study by Eleonora Belfiore portrays social practice that is driven by an army of artists who, willingly or not, often go without recognition or adequate pay.Belfiore, Eleonora. 2021. “Who Cares? At What Price? The Hidden Costs of Socially Engaged Arts Labour and the Moral Failure of Cultural Policy.” European Journal of Cultural Studies. The year-without-museums could have been an opportunity to reconfigure the flow of symbolic capital between social groups according to more noble principles, be that the truly selfless solidarity between London gay activists and Welsh miners striking in 1984 that was nostalgically portrayed in the film Pride (2014), or the unwittingly instrumental solidarity of students and workers in the Paris strikes of 1968.
One of the reasons this realignment may be difficult in practice is the considerable growth and professionalisation of the arts industry since the publication of Bourdieu’s book. In the UK, a larger and more diverse than ever art worker class was a success story in times of plentiful state funding. But in the austerity economics of the past decade, this same class, still growing due to the ever-expanding art schools, has been surplus to the labour needs of the waning public institutions and became acutely critical of their own industry’s failings. This pandemic has inevitably turned art worker’s solidarity impulses inwards.
If art can save others, why can’t it save itself? In the Instagram campaign #artistsupportpledge, in which artists solicited art sales by promising to buy further art with a portion of their takings, the pyramid shape of this innocent scheme is uncannily obscured by the accessible price-tag and the democracy of social media. But its motto is clear: help artists to help artists. Weeks later, designer Craig Oldham’s Keyworker Support similarly tried to redistribute social capital between groups: his poster campaign highlighted the contributions made by sanitation workers, migrant healthcare assistants, and delivery drivers by portraying them as equivalent of to those made by a long list that included immigration lawyers, accountants, and, of course, artists and graphic designers.
In a year filled with calls for allyship, artists make powerful allies through such skilful deployment of art’s powers to represent, signal, and inspire: we’re all artists, we all need help. But are “we”, and do “we”? Are catering assistants as cherished as pharmacists? Or are artists as indispensable as research scientists or as worthy of material reward as intellectual property lawyers, or as deserving of solidarity as essential workers? Oldham’s work featured ‘art curators’ no fewer than three times and is now on display at Manchester Art Gallery.
What emerges is deep confusion in how artists understand and perform solidarity and a blurring of the boundaries between artists’ own identities and those of the groups that are usually the beneficiaries of social practices. In the social turn, artists performed artistic services to create tangible benefits for non-art communities in partial exchange for the cultural capital generated by their work. In this new solidarity turn, however, artists themselves are among the beneficiary communities, and the question of where the tangible and intangible forms of capital come from becomes unavoidable.
The strikes surrounding the termination of some 300 retail, catering, and commercial jobs at Tate last summer illustrate this troubling ambiguity. Ten Turner Prize bursary recipients decreed that “artists are workers, and workers are artists, and we stand in solidarity with each other.” The strikers’ plea to Tate management was more remarkable still: because the workers were themselves likely artists, and because their number included historically disadvantaged groups, Tate owed these workers a double duty of care. In a single picket placard, the strike twinned the precarity of artistic lives with racism and classism. Never mind artists’ solidarity with workers if artists are by definition already underprivileged workers. This bears repeating: artists don’t only represent, empower, or include disadvantaged communities. In solidarity with the underprivileged, artists are the ones experiencing, signalling, or even reproducing oppression. In a sleight of hand, an offer of solidarity becomes a demand.
These examples could continue and include the art critic duo White Pube’s recent billboard campaign whose key message appears to be ‘universal basic income for us and our friends right now’. But it is perhaps the lot of the young dancer Fatima, a fictional character in a UK Government campaign that illustrates the complexities of dispensing solidarity under ill-defined identity characteristics. A rogue jpeg that quickly went viral suggested that Fatima may do well to consider retraining in technology as an alternative to her now doomed career in ballet. This call caused outrage from artistic communities who felt singled out as the sacrificial victims of the impending economic crisis. Accusations of racism and sexism followed.
Except that there was no such campaign. The offending jpeg was, in fact, years old and originally launched to inspire school-age girls into careers in ITC. The evidence is damning: artists might be fabricating evidence of their own oppression. The communal outcry is surely indicative of genuine hardship and justified anxiety, but that so many people without coordination, calculation, or malintent believed that they were being oppressed is indicative of an understanding that being perceived as oppressed solicits solidarity from others.
Read in Bourdieu’s tone, art’s principled stand in solidarity with itself reflects the fact that artists can now control the demand for social art simply by insisting that they are themselves worthy subjects of art’s attention. In this solidarity turn, a closed and self-referential system, art can judge the worthiness of its subjects and mark the effectiveness of its own work. Replicating the earlier social or ethical turns, art can therefore evade any external markers of value and thus continue to make unverifiable claims about its emancipatory power.
Such an outcome could only be self-defeating. Solidarity between members of a single group does not generate access to the resources that the group desires, unless, that is, those members of the group who do hold certain advantages are willing to trade it with those who do not, for the group’s overall benefit. This, however, is no easy task, because there is no consensus on where these advantages lie. A recent study by Friedman and Laurson portrays an industry in which advantage and disadvantage intermingle in ways that are often counterintuitive.Friedman, Sam, and Daniel Laurison. 2019. The Class Ceiling: Why It Pays to Be Privileged. Policy Press. For example, working-class women experience disadvantage in the performing arts, but see an advantage in the form of above-average wages in journalism. The effects of ethnicity are likewise highly asymmetrical in a way that is usually concealed by data collection methods. A related paperFriedman, Sam, Dave O’Brien, and Ian McDonald. 2021. “Deflecting Privilege: Class Identity and the Intergenerational Self.” Sociology. confirms that individuals often signal disadvantage whether it is true or not because being perceived as disadvantaged is understood to be beneficial.
We are not all in this together
A desire for solidarity troubles any existing agreement even further. Since neither the Romantic nor the neoliberal forms of individualised value can be translated into a collective form, art workers are further incentivised to see themselves as oppressed simply to fit into their identity group. There is no suggestion that such subversion of oppression narratives is the result of rational individual choices – this accounting system is genuinely complex – but it does suggest that those who can signal their disadvantage the loudest are not necessarily those most in need. Boltanski and Esquerresuggest a reason for this.Boltanski, Luc., and Arnaud Esquerre. 2020. Enrichment : A Critique of Commodities. Newark: Polity Press. They describe the art world as a maze in which individuals can hardly understand their positions in the industry’s social order. How could resources internal to the discipline be redistributed when the only agreed markers of advantage lie at the extremes of ‘precarious’ and ‘blue-chip’, and the latter is external to the conversation?
Art’s social mission is now key to education and practice, and social practice has doubtlessly generated significant and quantifiable social good. However, in doing so, it has made unrealistic promises not only to their subjects but also to their workforces. How could art turn to a model of social practice that is driven by genuine solidarity, rather than a vicious circle of exploitation and amelioration that’s entirely internal to the practice? The challenges of disambiguating between the claims put forward by the plethora of actors involved, given that individuals are demonstrably as capable of moral grandstanding as their institutions, are considerable.
This may not be comforting for those who currently place their hopes in the solidarity turn, precisely because even the unquestionably noble motives and historically productive ideas of solidarity are capable of being subsumed by a culture that resists any form of collectivity. When art workers take on the characteristics of other oppressed groups, whether justifiably, or through a gross misunderstanding of the intersectionalities at play, they are proposing that it is art itself is oppressive. This translates into a call for improvement of the material conditions of the workforce as much as it suggests dismantling art altogether. Finding out which of these will appeal to funders of art education and institutions is a game of Russian roulette. Neither result is likely to fairly improve the experiencing of those at a genuine disadvantage.
Artistic solidarity could be a powerful tool in resolving this tension, but only if it is twinned with a careful examination of the claims that art makes about its own needs, desires, and abilities. It must also be accompanied by a fundamental re-reading of historical models of solidarity between identity or class groups whose successes are attributable to the exchange of social capital. In practical terms, this would involve refraining from simplistic identarian rallies and separating art’s interest in itself from its social value claims. If art fails to engage in this debate, its workers may well be left to rely entirely on their own devices come the next crisis.
Change is in the air. It’s not clear if we are ready for it, and it may be a done deal already. Either way, the arts may be looking at an opportunity of a lifetime.
In a recent text for Hyperallergic and the Ford Foundation, the artist and writer Coco Fusco rejects the demand for artists to offer “uplifting” thoughts of a better future. Prompted to consider “our shared myths of justice and equity,” Fusco points to the histories and art movements, some of them still in living memory, that paid a heavy price for obliging the institutional desire for critique and self-flagellation. Artists who respond to their day’s urgent calls – in Fusco’s example the 1993 Whitney Biennial cohort – are judged to be “too simplistic, too strident, unmarketable, not representative, and anti-art.” Fusco concludes that it’s not new or more critical art that we need, but new institutions. The burden of creating a new future cannot fall on those (artists) who are already struggling with the museum’s duplicitous tyranny.
With the art world in turmoil, time might be right for changes from the very top. Fusco agrees: “the arts professionals that have been protesting in the streets and sending out declarations on social media are calling for institutional changes, not new aesthetic movements.”
If we are to judge the state of arts institutions by the complaints of those artists and insiders who dare to raise their voices, the need for change is dire. Social media accounts like @changethemuseum and @cancelartgalleries are just some outlets that collect stories of unprofessionalism, abuse, racism and occasional law-breaking by museums and commercial galleries alike. These indictments are only the latest instalments of complaints already laid at the doors of museums and galleries by artists for years. In the eyes of many, the 21st-century art institution’s stated aspiration to rid itself of its toxic DNA has remained just that: an aspiration. All that’s new is PR.
While no-one disagrees in principle that institutions should change, just how precisely one goes about this endeavour is less clear. Who should take the initiative? Fusco doesn’t think it’s artists who should storm the barricades. Should it then be the arts professionals who are already protesting in the streets? Those arts professionals who are peers of the very same artists Fusco would like to spare from this particular struggle?
But aspects of this tug of war are already well underway, making use of both aesthetic and civic tools available to artists. Plenty of the grievances aimed at individuals and institutions – expressed anonymously, in #metoo accounts, or through mass boycotts – have been successful in denting structures of power, thereby proving that the complaints weren’t groundless. One recent example of this is the resignation of the arms manufacturer and arts philanthropist Warren Kanders from the board of the Whitney following pressure from artists.
That the words ‘arms manufacturer’ and ‘arts philanthropist’ lie so closely together comes, in the words of Jenny Holzer, as no surprise; it also exposes as foolish the assumption that a predilection for art, however financially committed, is a conduit to moral virtue. We can’t assume, Fucsco noted, “that [social justice] is a shared value.” None of this, sadly, helps to address the ‘systemic’ problems of the institution. Not because it’d be a lifetime’s campaign to rid the museum of every tainted board member and the gallery of every unscrupulous dealer, but because the ‘systemic’ is embedded in us all.
If the art world is toxic and abusive or if it is a traitor to its stated ideals, it cannot be solely because management teams have fallen prey to the corrupting influence of donors and sponsors. It’s also unlikely that a cabal of morally bankrupt players intentionally ruins the game for everyone. What is more probable is that any individual’s commitment to the presumed shared values is subject to constant evaluation in play with their position within a social and institutional hierarchy in a way that is at once challenging and complex. While social justice and equity can be the foundations of a universal morality, the individual ethics of artists, technicians, curators, educators and managers will likely differ in response to their experiences of the institution.
We only need to look back to Andrea Fraser’s take on institutional critique for a reminder that we are all inescapably implicated in the institution’s failures, whether through our desire for its endorsement, our resentment of its refusal, or even our rejection of its primacy. To be an artist or an arts professional is to bear responsibility for all the museum’s shortcomings.
Put crudely: power corrupts, as does participation in any structure. But perhaps this experience need not be wasted on simply reproducing the very same system which corrupts in the first place. The good news in this charge is that arts professionals – and yes, artists – are the very people best placed to change the institution and to build alternatives to it. So if not us, then who?
Wherever we are is museum
Another struggle affecting most of the world may come in handy as an outsized illustration of a complex system trying to reform and break away from its zero-sum predicament. Climate change has been a preoccupation of activists and civil society for almost a decade, and many governments have now conceded that action is necessary.
Despite the almost unanimous good intentions, not much has changed, and it would be easy to apportion blame to any component of the system: the politics are too complicated, lobby interests get in the way, and there’s a looming conceptual gap between the actions of individuals and those of societies at large. On closer inspection, it turns out that it’s the difficulty of negotiating values, and not moral disagreement, that is a barrier to action: a survey of UK parliamentarians, for example, suggested that social norms and relationships between lawmakers, and not the lack of political accord, are the root of the problem.
Arguably, where the fight to reduce carbon emissions has found a relatively easy win is in innovation such as wind power, where the already existing infrastructures of manufacturing, financing and distribution have been able to come together to create a revolution while only seeking reform. In the US, the business-minded aspects of the Green New Deal have the potential to achieve similar results by simply diverting the productive focus of the ‘business as usual’ model to greener ends.
While it would be irresponsible to completely discount the role of pressures from activist groups in creating a political environment open to innovation, one must note that organisations such as Extinction Rebellion are often at odds with the very idea of business and capital. Despite this, occasionally, business and capital get things right. The key point here is that demand and innovation need to come together to create the conditions of change. The ‘system’ is unlikely to change under negative pressure alone unless it’s offered a viable and sustainable alternative.
In the art world, then, activism, protest and desire for change need to be accompanied by innovation, speculation and experimentation: the very things that artists and arts professionals are trained for. Easier said than done, of course, because unlike the energy industry, the experimental structures in the arts lack capital, and unlike engineering, the arts aren’t all that good at communicating and expanding their learning. The former may be a structural deterrent, but the latter, the industry must take some responsibility for.Both the problems are visible in the struggles of small and medium-sized arts institutions in the era of Europe’s turn away from state funding and towards private philanthropy. A 2015 study revealed that most UK organisations’ business models were stuck with the same poor ideas: desperately opening cafés and courting the same group of donors while resenting the very idea of entrepreneurialism. That among the thousands of arts professionals involved in shaping these structures, no-one had ideas that better represent the values and desires of these often young and dynamic institutions beggars belief.
The resistance of the arts towards knowledge and skills from disciplines such as management and finance comes to the detriment of both the art and its institutions. It is all too easy to dismiss management as dehumanising, corrupt and responsible for the shortcomings of institutions as we know them, while to concentrate on concentrating on community building instead is immediately rewarding. In the long run, however, wouldn’t it be better to learn – and to steal – from management such techniques that can make the communities and the institutions that artists care about stronger? Who, if not artists, will innovate and bring these new institutions to life?
The arts should have seen it coming: theatres and museums were amongst the first to close. Culture proclaimed itself to be in crisis as early as March, and little relief came with the lifting of the first wave of lockdown. The idea that stages and galleries would soon again be full and reemploy the thousands of workers they used to should have solicited some scepticism.
The art community’s outraged response to a government campaign which suggested that the young ballet dancer Fatima may do well to consider a career in cyber security points to quite the opposite. Earlier, Rishi Sunak attracted the scorn of every artist, technician and arts manager when he suggested that some creatives may have to retrain. He had, after all, told us even in his ‘good cop’ moments that not all jobs could be saved.
Parts of the artistic community thus welcomed the £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund with suspicion and a cry of betrayal. Arts jobs must be saved! Dancers have to dance, artists have to make art, curators have to curate… Remember when Trump laughed at the idea that Kentucky coal miners, with their “big beautiful hands”, would retrain as coders? That must be for a different kind of person altogether.
The government, in fact, has little interest in reforming lost artistic souls. Fatima, for example, was not a seasoned professional forced to throw away years of training and experience in pursuit of a suitable post-pandemic job, but part of a 2019 National Cyber Security Centre campaign encouraging school-age girls into careers in the digital sector through training and bursaries. Likewise, Rishi Sunak never suggested that cultural workers turn elsewhere, and ITV retracted the story. Yet the hair-trigger response reveals the art world’s deep and well-founded anxiety.
Supply and demand
Who, then, decides how much art is enough, and who gets to make it, manage it, and critique it before it reaches its audiences? Before the pandemic, some culture fared well in the free markets – think of the commercial successes of West End musicals, for example. Other art forms, like the visual arts or dance, made a good show of looking healthy between diminishing public funding and the infancy of private patronage.
As efficient as markets have been at determining cinema ticket prices and auction results of blue-chip art, they’re no help with an artistic work or experience that actively resists commodification. Culture has long maintained that its price tag is at best a reflection of labour or materiality. The emotional, ethical, or political aspects of contemporary art are more akin to the spiritual and eternal values mediated by religions than the market-driven premiums of fair-trade chocolate or ethical laundry detergent. In art, all products are marketed as ethical, redemptive and transcendental, or as disruptive, life-changing or quite simply genius.
The underlying story of art and artists in the past decades, however, has been one of a dramatic rise in the sheer volume of cultural production. Many more artists produced far more art in Britain in 2019 than at the end of the last century, but public demand had not necessarily kept up. Shepherding the sector into a post-pandemic world will take a lot more than a bailout.
Let’s fill this town with artists
A major cultural change came at the turn of the century, which saw the arts – and visual art in particular – adopting a new, active role in responding to the mood of society. With new public funding and policy, art became an agent of social amelioration and change. Art schools expanded accordingly to train new armies of artists, and even the economic crisis of 2008 did not deflate their bubble for long. Britain would have all the artists it wanted to – and more.
By the time the public funding landscape changed in 2010, there were more than one eager artists for every job, exhibition, socially-engaged project, or commission available. The teenage Fatima would be well advised to think hard about her choice of career as many practising artists saw their earnings stagnate, and plenty of the younger ones struggled at the bottom rung of the career ladder where opportunities are rewarded with ‘exposure’ rather than cash. All the same, the idea of putting ‘artists first’ espoused publicly by arts institutions continued to cultivate the myth of the artist as a privileged visionary.
Here, art bears an uncanny resemblance to European religions. As parish priest, today’s average artist forgoes the riches of the cathedral or the power of the higher levels of the hierarchy. Their main reward is the respect of their communities, the ability to interpret cultural codes, and the power to ritually deliver supplicants from philistiny and intellectual impoverishment. The aesthetic mission of art tries to keep the same distance from the business of art’s societal impact as the church does between the gospel and its charitable work, which make arguments about the value of cultural enrichment about as complex as critiques of institutions of the church.
Accounting for taste
What of demand for art and culture? Different sections of society take starkly divergent views of which artistic and cultural practices are desirable. Opera almost always commands significant state subsidies, offering indulgences, the highest levels of redemption for the bourgeoisies. Theatre, perhaps for its ability to speak to the present, has been more likely to pay its way. That Shakespeare’s Globe sustained itself commercially is a sign of the importance of heritage theatre to the national psyche: GCSE Macbeth gets one into purgatory at least.
Not so for all arts. The contemporary visual arts or contemporary dance, for example, could hardly survive at the mercy of their ticket-paying publics and philanthropists alone. It’s public subsidy, and the artificially low costs of artistic labour that have allowed a plethora of loss-making artistic institutions to survive and grow as they have.
Even if no government would diminish the importance of culture to society, it often falls on artists themselves to manufacture intellectually-satisfying levels of public demand for their art. It’s not just marketing, however. When the church struggled to solicit sufficient tithings from parishioners with god’s good news alone, it could always send in the devil as reinforcement. Perhaps to its detriment, art rarely scares its audiences into submission, but its institutions are the prime interpreters and valuers of non-commercial culture. It’s art and artists who decide how much art is enough, and this interpretative monopoly has driven the expansion of the arts priesthood over the past three decades. Knowingly, requests for supply-side subsidies are often framed in the language of demand. Arts Council England, for example, calls for ‘art for everyone’, whether they want it or not.
Some art is better than no art, but more art is not always better than that
None of this has been a bad thing for audiences, and much of the arts was perfectly financially viable before the pandemic, at relatively low cost to the taxpayer. For artistic aspirants like Fatima, the arts offered nothing but encouragement, promising autonomy, the support of a powerful peer group, and offering the chance to change the world and shape public sensibilities – all while doing what one already loves.
In fact, the industry has been in denial for years. The supply-success of cultural production comes at a relatively low cost to the taxpayer, but not without the level of rot one might have more readily associated with the exploitative aspects of shareholder capitalism. And what’s the one resource that art had no shortage of to address these institutional problems? Naturally, it has been more art. Audiences aren’t visiting your museum? Hire cheaper community artists to visit your audiences. Political art hasn’t yet started the revolution artists were promised at school? Run more social practice projects. Commercial galleries carve up the market leaving most artists without a chance of success? Produce more work critiquing galleries. Museums are corrupt and undemocratic? Have artists produce more institutional critique. Young artists are drowning in debt and waiting tables to make ends meet? Educate more artists so they can problematise the condition to their own unemployability.
Gross culture added
As the pandemic wrecked the cultural industries, a plea from the devil playbook of organised religion called on the public to remember artists in their dark hour. “If you think artists are useless, try to spend your quarantine without music, books, poems, movies or paintings”, cried one meme. This might have worked temporarily, but even if Netflix and Spotify saved the day, there’s still no easy way for the public to value the arts and artists directly should they wish to. As it stands, Fatima’s job is as good as gone, and if the arts dismiss the warning to ‘rethink, reskill, reboot’, they will do so at their peril.
In their refusal to deal with their systemic problems, the cultural industries have neglected to develop meaningful narratives of their social value, preferring to instead talk about economic contributions or the imperative of supporting artists in following their calling. The problem they face now is that neither of the arguments is particularly compelling at a time of crisis. Claims of the value of culture based on comparison with the size of the aviation industry have limited appeal, particularly taking into account the cost of diminished earning potential and unpaid student loans of arts graduates and other forms of welfare many artists depend on.
After the flood
One alternative to this battle for scarce resources and symbolic rewards is the Scandinavian model of state-sponsored no-strings-attached stipends for artists, last seen in the UK in the 1980s. For the country the size of Norway, this is an efficient way to support an artistic workforce: the state can effortlessly afford to educate and maintain, say, a thousand artists, and thus take the credit for the success of the country’s top thousand talents, regardless of whether these artists do much at all or not. At scale, this approach is expensive (remember the inexhaustible supply of artistic talent), and prone to making losses on its investments, unless it becomes merit-based and selective at the outset, determining who would become an artist perhaps by restricting the number of arts graduates.
This latter valve-approach is what DCMS and its Culture Recovery Fund appear to favour. Allocating its cash to commercial organisations as much as to non-profits, Arts Council England nodded to a demand-led recovery, while Oliver Dowden appealed to museums to spend the money in an entrepreneurial manner. Elsewhere, policy announcements signalled a reversal of the supply-stimulating policies that ruled arts and humanities education for the past decades. Governments since 2010 have made it clear that they don’t wish to keep stimulating the supply of art, and on the understanding that the marginal benefit of training an extra artist tends to nil, the arts were sotto-voce singled out as an example of the kind of education the state no longer wishes to invest in.
What next for Fatima?
For many theatres and music venues, the worst may still be yet to come, but neither the assets nor the skills and talents of the arts ecosystem will dissipate this easily. It will take time and be no plain sailing for countless individuals, but where once stood a community arts centre or an experimental production house, we may eventually find a commercial operator who saw an opportunity in the gloom of the pandemic.
Fatima can for now remain hopeful that the industry she loves will find some space for her in the future – if she can survive the next year or so, that is. Ironically, although to no consolation, the competition for scarce opportunities and the struggle to become a professional artist may well have prepared her to cope better with the uncertainties of her frayed industry.
It may be the government’s softly-stated desire that in time, there will be fewer young Fatimas competing for the more market-appropriate number and kinds of artistic jobs, saving the taxpayers money on both supply and demand. Such a policy would be at best short-sighted, but perhaps go some way to demonstrating the evasive values of culture to society just as that culture becomes replaced by something else altogether.
For now, young people will continue to flock to the arts, even with the full knowledge of the sacrifices they might likely endure – not because they didn’t have the talents to become cyber security experts, but because the arts are about the only realm of contemporary life that sometimes still deliver on their promises of authenticity, freedom, and agency.
One of the upsides of the pandemic lockdown for some has been the opportunity to learn online and to develop new skills. The changes in the economy which will inevitably follow make up-skilling or re-skilling a smart choice.
However, predicting which skills will be in demand, and how to acquire them, is more difficult. In fact, the rhetorics of skills and their relationship to education and employability has been vexed for some time by narratives that include immigration, class, creativity, and an industry of educators resilient to change.
In February, the UK government laid out its proposals for a new ‘points-based’ immigration system. A migrant’s eligibility for an employment visa is set to be determined by their potential earnings and the level of their qualifications.
These plans already had their opponents, but as the debate came into renewed focus in May, and the main bone of contention was the issue of skills. Nurses and paramedics, heroes of the pandemic response, were held up examples of professionals that would no longer be eligible for visas because their starting salaries fell under the government’s proposed salary floor. A widely-circulated tweet prompted outrage: is a radiographer really ‘unskilled’?
This in fact is a misrepresentation of the proposed policies: on that list of healthcare professions, most meet the government’s proposed criteria for qualifications, and earnings.
All the same, the outrage continued. An opposition minister questioned the government: “Are our shop workers unskilled? Our refuse collectors? Of course they are not.” The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants echoed: “bus drivers and lorry drivers, care workers and shop workers, nurses and cleaners – they are not ‘unskilled’ or unwelcome.”
Whether one is skilled and whether one is welcome are separate questions. This appeal against the migration policies relies on a false equivalence: it constructs an analogy and solidarity between radiologists (qualified professionals with extensive training) and waste collectors (the dictionary definition for unskilled labour) on the grounds of their skills, rather than on moral or economic ones. There are of course plenty of other arguments for keeping borders open, for example to increase the diversity in the labour force, for the economic contribution migrants make, on humanitarian grounds, or more cynically because migrants are cheaper to employ.
If to be unskilled is to be undesirable, then skills become highly emotive. We can no longer recognise what skills are, how they are measured, and how to discriminate between them: the discourse proposes that all skills are equally good, useful and desirable. To deny this and to imply that some workers are unskilled is to strike against their dignity.
It’s not what you know
Implicit in the desire for cutting low-skilled migration is the contested belief that a significant proportion of the indigenous population is economically inactive, probably fraudulently in receipt of state welfare, and only just qualified for those low-paid jobs. Ironically, that very same part of the UK population, perhaps having forgotten just how poor the conditions of low-wage work can be, are assumed to have voted to block migrants from competing in the job market in the Brexit referendum.
This narrative is further confounded by stories of qualified surgeons who as immigrants drive taxis or wait tables, which inspire awe and resentment in equal measure. The flip-side of this phenomenon is brain-drain: countries like Bulgaria and Romania lament skilled youths fleeing their homelands for more prosperous EU countries, taking with them their states’ education. In reality, the picture is more complex: it is mostly the lowest-skilled workers who have taken advantage of open borders, and some countries like Poland have been able to convince many of their citizens to return.
And so both anti- and pro-immigration politics produce almost the same attitude to skills: it most likely doesn’t matter what you know, but rather who you are and how hard you’re willing to work at whatever is left over when the better jobs have been distributed.
Home to world-class talent
The national morale is shaped by a country’s place in international rankings of wealth, education, productivity, and of skills. Britain’s marketing collateral maintains that the country is a powerhouse of innovation, ingenuity, and quality, all supported by a skilled workforce. Countries and businesses compete for those skills – one recalls for example the threat of financial services talent fleeing to Frankfurt if the Brexit trade settlement turned out unfavourably.
An index of an individual’s suitability for vacancies in the labour market is in principle useful to ensure that the public education system produces graduates with the right level of qualifications and skills to meet the demand of employers. Formally, skills are measured by qualifications and training. A master’s degree is a reflection of a higher level of skills than a vocational qualification obtained at secondary school. Until the 1980s, this was hardly controversial, along with the view that highly educated societies were wealthier, healthier, and happier.
Things got complicated with the collapse of manufacturing and the rise of the service and knowledge economies: workers moved from the assembly line to the office and the office demanded different skills. This move coincided with the 1990s widening of access to higher education which flooded the labour market with graduates. Eventually, the same job could attract – or demand – candidates with a higher level of qualifications. Whereas a typical clerical job in the 1980s could be performed by a worker with college-level education, by the 2000s, it was deemed a degree-level position.
Skills for all and all for skills
This inflation in qualifications demanded does not necessarily indicate that the job itself became any more complex or that university is now the best place to gain the required skills. The rapid spread of office technologies highlighted differences in skill levels between generations of workers, but given the subsequent adoption of the same technologies in everyday life, this gap righted itself without much intervention.
Training and schooling naturally respond to external developments in technology and communication. Many children today arrive at school knowing their way around a keyboard, and undergraduates will have been able to access the world’s knowledge even before arriving at university. Formal education builds on those already cultivated basic skills. Given their head-start, a graduate in 2020 should in principle have wider knowledge or practical experience after three years of learning than a student with the same qualification from 1980, particularly in disciplines which have continued to develop rapidly.
There is, however, a draw-back for this student after university: not all the university-level skills which the graduate brings to their first office job are strictly necessary, and even less so if they end up in a mismatched career. If all that’s needed in the basic knowledge-economy office job are MS Office and Instagram skills, why spend three years studying anthropology? In the long term, this serves to devalue formal education, and eventually a degree course may be worth no more than a secretarial college diploma of the 1970s. As 34% of graduates end up in non-graduate jobs, they may be better off not investing in gradate skills.
Some of this devaluation has already been internalised by the education system. A report a decade ago criticised much of the UK’s vocational training as unfit for its purpose, singling out a formal qualification in ‘personal effectiveness’ which taught 11000 teenagers how to claim unemployment benefits and to use a telephone. An explosion of Mickey Mouse degrees – for example bachelor’s degrees in golf management or cultural studies that include modules on the science of Harry Potter – attracted even more derision than art history studies traditionally did.
Department for good intentions
If we believe that skilled societies are wealthier, then Tony Blair’s mantra of ‘education, education, education’ should still be the orthodoxy today. Instead, governments have struggled to capture the relationship of skills to the economy and society. In the past fifteen years, UK ministries responsible have included the ‘Department for Education and Skills’, for ‘Innovation, Universities and Skills’, then ‘Business, Innovation & Skills’, before splintering into the ‘Learning and Skills Council’ and eventually the ‘Skills Funding Agency’, an arm’s reach, non-political body.
The days of university education for education’s sake may be numbered as the government no longer believes that 50% of young people should go to university. According to the universities minister, the institutions have “dumbed down”, “inflated grades”, and left students – particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds – with a “debt that didn’t pay off in any sense.” The answer, in the form of the forthcoming T-levels, a new grade of vocational qualifications that lead to careers in human resources, accounting or administration, seems designed to reverse the qualification inflation and to replace a range of degree courses with cheaper alternatives.
Whether this critique of universities is fair is debatable, but a reversal in the higher education policy would complement the forthcoming shake-up of the migration system. Brexit Britain has committed itself to replacing migrant truck drivers and shop staff with indigenous workers, in one clean sweep reducing unemployment and cutting the education bill. In the long run, there will be little reason to keep investing in skills that these low-pay jobs do not require.
The UK government polls organisations to identify which sectors of the economy find it difficult to fill vacancies owing to skill shortages in the working-age population. Contrary to the intuitive view that the most skilled professionals are always in highest demand (no-one has ever met an unemployed pharmacist or lawyer), the industries which report the greatest difficulties in filling vacancies are construction, utilities, transport, and manufacturing, all of which rely on semi-skilled workforces.
Industries with either low-skill work (such as hospitality and retail) or with professional workforces (communications, education, business services) have fared better – but hotels, restaurants and factories have been most likely to look for employees from abroad when they struggle to fill vacancies at home.
Planning for this future, however, is riven with complexities, limited by the accuracy of forecasting of global trade and labour markets, and frustrated by a generation-long lag between investment in skills and its pay-off. The challenge to the economy posed by the Covid-19 pandemic will add to the difficulty of predicting future demand particular skills too.
Four skills good, two skills better
In sociological and population studies, the skill level of a job is a stand-in for its holder’s social class. Not surprisingly, social grade correlates with income, consumption of media, and spending patterns. Some 10-15% of the working age population are in either unskilled, semi-skilled manual jobs or lowest-grad and casual employment – and this proportion has been falling since the 1960s.
In the UK’s historically-conditioned relationship to social stratification, nobody wants to be working-class. Politician John Prescott, suggesting that a participant of his 2009 television documentary was working-, rather than middle-class was rebuffed with a sharp “I don’t work, do I?”
If no-one wants to be working class, then no-one should want to be unskilled. The received wisdom is that education – twinned with hard work and good luck – is the key to social betterment. While the advice remains unchanged, every generation has its own framework for skills and education, and recent slogans in the UK have included ‘achieving excellence’ and ‘raising aspirations’.
What skills should young people aspire to bring to the economy? One might disparage teenagers dreaming of careers as influencers or e-sports competitors: the liberalisation of education has arguably mis-sold dreams of careers rich in choice, satisfaction and reward to recent generations for whom work is a lifestyle as much as a necessity.
Channeling these supply-side aspirations into a demand-led skill and labour market has been challenging. In 2011, the Russell Group of leading UK universities introduced guidance to aspiring students on school subject choices, favouring STEM – science, technology, engineering, mathematics – as facilitating entry to the prestigious institutions and their most prized courses. Top universities were to be once again almæ matres to the professional cadres, training engineers, scientists, lawyers, doctors, while ‘softer’ skills would remain part of the less competitive open market for education. Far from encouraging debate about the kinds of skills society will need in the future, the guidance met with backlash from the humanities education lobby, who resisted the implicit characterisation of their subject matter as secondary. Some arts institutions have sought advantage by aligning themselves with the sciences-first ethos. The Royal College of Art, for example, markets itself as a STEAM leader – adding arts to the STEM canon. The recently updated Russell Group guidance for fourteen year old students now paints all choices as valid, disavowing the institutions’ responsibility for the viability of students’ careers.
It’s what you do with it
The A in STEAM has a legitimate place in contemporary life: one would hardly wish for a world run by and for scientists alone. The generous Covid-19 rescue packages for the arts have highlighted the importance of culture to national aspirations of Germany and France. In the UK, a generous bailout follows two decades of instrumental investments in skills for the creative economy. This has arguably created a concentration of expertise that made the country an attractive place for practitioners and investors alike, making it a powerhouse of film production, game design, advertising and fashion.
By 2000, that ‘everyone was creative’ was a matter of public policy. Creativity was to fuel the growth of service and knowledge economies, and it became the must-have skill. The arts, cultural and media industries have been trading credit for their contribution to the economic value of the creative industries to secure funding and attention, and the relationship between arts education and the wider economy has eluded policymakers for some time.
In a bid to become the skills provider of choice, it was art schools – rather than, say, technical colleges or universities – that presented themselves as experts. What did these institutions equip students graduating into the creative economy with? Given the trend for deskilling that characterised much of postmodern art practice and art education of the 1980s, this question is a paradox at best. Since Marcel Duchamp presented his readymade ‘Fountain’ in 1917, art has been loosening its demand for technical skill, and Joseph Beuys’ proclamation that ‘everyone is an artist’ became true.
The dominant art school curriculum at the turn of the century favoured concepts over their execution, and context over formal considerations. Art schools expanded their offerings and attracted unprecedented numbers of students, eventually blurring the boundaries between skills and aptitudes.
Shortage of creativity in the labour force is not a barrier for employers, but this has not stopped universities and art schools from promoting the idea that investing in creativity is an imperative. Such was the esteem for the creativity and critical thought of arts graduates that in 2004 the Harvard Business Review suggested that “the MFA is the new MBA”.
Everyone can call themselves an artist: no trade body membership or accreditation are required. As art school degrees are a straightforward way to demonstrate commitment to the field, art schools obliged with a platter of qualifications. The Diplomas of the 1970s which recognised artistic training morphed into BA (Hons) of the 1990s. Today, an MA is the entry-level qualification for jobs in the creative industries, with PhDs not uncommon amongst practicing artists.
The diversity of postgraduate specialisms has grown in recent years, indicating that universities have begun taking their responsibility for the employability of their graduates seriously. Where creative studio practices of art, design, fashion and photography were at the centre of most programmes, disciplines such as ‘art and internet equalities’, ‘photography and social practice’ or ‘data science for the creative industries’ have expanded the field.
Art is skill
The sculptor Eric Gill maintained that skill is crucial to art – “that it is the first meaning of the word.” In a world where creativity is universal, this view fell out of fashion as much as Gill’s work has in light of revelations of his personal life.
The loss of traditional skills is both the story of and material for contemporary art. Belgian artist Eric Van Hove’s work in Morocco is a lament of the disappearance of technical skills and experience with the passing of the country’s last generation of craftsmen. To avert this extinction, Van Hove employs a full workshop of carpenters, smiths and leather workers in an attempt to create a home-built alternative to the imported motorcycles ubiquitous on the country’s roads.
In this so far unsuccessful project, the artist is not the master craftsman, but its CEO and shareholder. And perhaps it is the business world that offers the most important skills to today’s artists; a traditional studio and gallery practice relies as much on fluency in marketing, financial management and contract law as it does on the quality of ideas and artistic technique.
Throughout the history of avant-gardes art movements, art has made claims of its importance in shaping not only the communal imaginary, but also providing blueprints for social and political changes. Today’s art sees its social mission as core, and even the most commercial of art practices describe themselves as political. This ‘social turn’ coincided with developments in cultural policies that allowed the artist to take central positions in civic society.
It is not long ago that the goals of social arts practice, such as education, facilitating dialogue or driving urban renewal, were the domains of teachers, social workers and architects. Today, artistic projects aimed at building community cohesion, encouraging resilience, or ameliorating social conditions are the mainstay of cultural providers. Arts Council England’s strategy that makes funding for arts institutions contingent on the positive social effects of their work is indicative of a drive to replace the traditional guards of social order with the free-form rebellious creativity of artists.If art is to appropriate the work of other professions, shouldn’t it at least pay heed to the skills which drive them? Artists don’t think so: a recent survey lists only the softest of skills in play: respect, influencing, diplomacy, leadership. In composing a lexicon for art’s utility, Steven Wright notes the fundamental difficulty: “to speak of artistic competence is to sound suspiciously conservative, if not downright reactionary”.
Nurturing creative instincts is arguably cheaper than technical training. It’s cheaper than chemistry, too, and this alone renders a nuanced debate on skills useless. So much so that Mal Pancoast, to whom the enigmatic, yet believable quotation in the title of this essay is attributed online, on inspection turned out to be fictional.
The arts might have hoped for a clean slate – but the post-pandemic art world is unlikely to be much better than the old one.
For many, particularly the urban middle classes, the denial of access to the culture they knew was the first shock of the pandemic. In the early days of the UK’s coronavirus lockdown, the plight of the arts featured in media commentaries almost as heavily as the far more dramatic events in hospitals. This was perhaps because the government-mandated closures of theatres, galleries and museums heralded what was still to come for restaurants, bars, shops and community centres.
And so the art world was raptured away into the new universal museum for anxious souls: the Internet. Alas, after an early explosion of online exhibitions, many an Instagram Live performance started off to an audience of two dozen before losing half to technical difficulties. Screen fatigue and existential anxieties meant that the initial explosion of interest in online production and consumption of art has waned almost as quickly as it arose.
While competing with Netflix for bandwidth and attention spans, the arts began to count their losses. Emergency government grants and philanthropic support have helped to stabilise the short-term incomes of organisations and artists, but many should not expect to recover with ease, if at all. As days passed under lockdown, the art world was shaken by reports of New York’s MoMA unceremoniously sacking its education staff while their endowment stands at $1 billion, or London’s Southbank Centre having to remain closed until next spring due to a shortage of funds.
The view from the precipice can be as exhilarating as it is terrifying. In the trauma of cancelled exhibitions, scrapped projects, postponed residencies – not to mention lost incomes – one can hear a cry for change, and a desire to emerge into a different reality.
The show business glamour of the art world: the globetrotting and champagne-fuelled networking in Venice or ArtBasel that only few can truly afford has been wearisome for some time. Calls for reform have been a constant refrain in the rhythm of biennials, conferences, art fairs and exhibition openings. In the publicly-funded institutional sphere, contemporary art also trod an unsustainable path, taking on a heavy burden of driving social change, promoting and enacting the most ambitious of political agendas on the tightest of budgets.
The opportunity seems too good to miss. With every constituent of the contemporary art world, from the international auction house to the freelance gallery technician, disturbed to the core, the pandemic offers a moment to reflect and plan a recovery that’s more sustainable and equitable.
Similarly-poised campaigns in other areas have seized the moment of the pandemic – we all marvelled at the photographs of crystal clear waters in Venice and applauded plans for car-free city centres in Paris and London – so why couldn’t art?
But were they? What could one expect from an industry riven by internal contradictions and a sustainability score of an oil tanker? However glossy, democratic, progressive and inviting the Western art world appeared to its lay audiences, it had long suffered from all the ailments of late capitalist commodity culture, including widespread exploitation of labour, vast inequalities in income and wealth, inexcusable environmental record, and friction at the boundary of public good and private luxury.
Despite decades of negotiation and public self-flagellation – symbolised by institutional critique, a movement which honed in on the inescapable corruption of the art world and the impossibility, in the words of Andrea Fraser, of participating without becoming synonyms with its complexities – there is no consensus on what a better art world and art could be.
For associate editor of the Spectator Mary Wakefield, “getting coronavirus does not bring clarity.” On suffering trauma, Wakefield naturally hoped for a premonition. She describes the fatigue, fever and whooping anxiety of the illness, all of which go unrewarded. The world’s artists, museums, and art fairs alike have suffered unprovoked damage too, and they are looking for some sort of awakening in compensation.
History does offer some grand precedents which almost justify this hope. In the wake of the Second World War, the arts came back stronger, notes Charlotte Higgins. Picasso’s Guernica, painted in response to the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War, is one of art’s most powerful expressions of anger and pain and has symbolised the anti-war movement since. And sure, time may bring significant art. Maya Binkin points to Henry Moore, Egon Schiele and Ai WeiWei as examples of artists whose practices responded to trauma to their strengths.
The sheer amount of artistic energy recently poured into Zoom alone should see a new art take form, and meeting a digital-only audience will encourage new ideas. This will take time, though. Jörg Heiser describes much of the ‘quarantine art’, including projects commissioned by the world’s foremost institutions, as ‘empty heroics’. The artist Simon Fujiwara’s now deleted Instagram post which cited the Diary of Anne Frank as inspiration for starting his own quarantine diary comes to mind.
But where for some artists, the experience of lockdown, illness or losing loved ones may result in a profound change of practice, there is no guarantee that the structural issues of their industry will be touched by it at all. As Michel Houellebecq, the bad boy of contemporary French literature proclaimed, the world is likely to be the same, only a little worse after the ‘banal’ virus. The changes we may see are the same ones we could have predicted years ago: an encroaching obsolescence of human relationships that drives the world into the hands of ever-consolidating business and technological interests.
Saving the arts
Reading the statements of arts institutions which accompanied the lockdown closures, one could be touched by their almost magnanimous care for their audiences and staff. In preparing their quarantine programmes, outfits like Tate Modern had a head start, but even smaller institutions soon found ways to open up their archives, stream endless video, and host live conversations.
For a moment, it seemed that this move to the virtual could have a democratising effect. Audiences who had previously been excluded from accessing cultural experiences – through economic, geographic or educational obstacles – could now all point and click their way towards artistic enlightenment. Blockbuster exhibitions turned free and even art fairs like Frieze that normally cater to a narrow base of collectors and professionals went online, with price lists visible to all.
That this opening effect will last is far from a given. If will was all that was needed to make existing art materials available free of charge, why hadn’t this happened a long time ago? Free exhibitions that so generously opened online in March were by May were giving way to fundraising appeals, print sales and charity auctions.
One may also read the cries of solidarity between the art world and its audiences as a thinly veiled attempt to ensure self-preservation in the inevitable economic downturn that will follow the pandemic. By highlighting the public relevance of the arts in a time of crisis, the arts are preparing their argument for public support in the future.
While for many advocates the value of the arts is universally understood, some tug at the purse strings of an entirely different department altogether. In an attempt to secure patronage for his institution, the vice-chancellor of the Royal College of Art in London Paul Thompson made a perplexing argument that “art schools play an essential role in supporting the medical industry”.
Faced with a shock, the first instinct of the art world colossus has been to seek stability in the very same structures of capitalism that made banks ‘too big to fail’ in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Those actors who were strongest before the pandemic also stand the highest chance of accessing the support – that is funding – that will allow them to weather the storm.
The giants of the commercial art world, including the blue chip galleries that disproportionately benefit from the art market’s stellar rise of the past decades, have displayed nothing but optimism for the future. Marc Glimcher, director of Pace gallery, spoke of his personal experience of Covid-19 with an air of martyrdom, chastised himself for waste of relentless international travel his job entails, but stopped short of resolving to make any changes. Former gallerist and art fair founder Elisabeth Dee, hopes for more cooperation between galleries in the future – but also for interest-free credit and subsidies for art fairs.
No (good) new ideas
In the history of revolutions, those movements which were successful in bringing about lasting change were underpinned by strongly-developed ideologies which permeated their society. In the French Revolution, the complete permeation of Enlightenment ideals in the aristocracy and bourgeois classes created a parallel ideology to absolutism that was ready to replace it. And, frustrated by the endless postponements of the true revolution, the Bolsheviks simply created their own shadow government structure. In the smoldering ruins of 1917, they were the only ones left with an idea, any idea, and thus took power.
For things to change for good, Covid-19 would need to have more in common with a revolutionary movement than with an evolutionary process. There may have been many revolutionary ideas in the art world, but none of them have taken centre stage.
If things change, they will do so because of market failure, not because the industry willed it. The art world is just one instrument of many in the financialised arsenal of control. In the beginning of the pandemic, Naomi Klein’s doctrine of ‘disaster capitalism’ was typical of the liberal intellectual response: the ‘unprecedented’ nature of the event was in fact well-rehearsed and a familiar tool of late capitalism for extending control over its subjects.
In the art world torn apart by its own inequities while it preaches revolution to its audiences, a practical, scalable methodology for change is lacking. As long as artists and their institutions seek artistic freedoms, social relevance, fame and profits at the same time, they will remain stuck in the vicious circle Klein describes.
Disaster capitalism has its victors, but it also requires martyrs, and artists are only happy to oblige. When a study suggested that artists were amongst the professions least likely to contract Covid-19, second only to lumberjacks, ArtMonthly sighed with indignation that the scientists clearly hadn’t heard of social practice, while The New York Times shed a tear for a generation of artists graduating this year who will miss out on being ‘discovered’, despite having paid their tuition fees.
Sacrifice is arguably self-seeking, if not economically, then symbolically. Now that most arts institutions have moved their discursive practices online, making them free to all, one can tune in on artists, curators and thinkers across the globe discussing their difficulties and anxieties in uniformly grim tones infused with perfunctory hopes for a brighter aftermath.
Alexander Garcia Düttmann laments the compliant response of art schools, historically the breeding grounds of social critique, to the conditions of the pandemic: artists and the academy “are content with reproducing bland social therapy discourses”. This is hardly new: plenty of the social practice projects that are the stalwart of museum and gallery engagement and education programmes confuse the performance of preordained ameliorative services with meaningful critique or emancipation.
Jörg Heiser suggests that artists pay lip-service to social causes while cultivating the image of a heroic dissenter precisely because “not doing so would require them to admit […] an unsettling sense of existential insecurity.” This would damage the myth of the artists as an truth-seer immune from petty concerns, “so the typical panic reaction has been to rehash preconceived notions to fit new circumstances.”
One bold suggestion has been mega-curator Hans Ulrich Obrist’s ambitious proposal to meet the challenges of the post-pandemic art world with a programme akin to the 1930s US Public Works Arts Projects. The post-depression programme commissioned thousands of works of art and gave employment to hundreds of artists, and has gone down in history as the greatest state-supported art initiative, outside perhaps of communist China and Bolshevik Russia.
In the coming years, many artists will surely relish an opportunity of employment decorating state schools and hospitals – many do so already – but Obrist’s proposal fails to take into account capitalism’s ability to wield the soft power of art to its own advantage, and artists’ wary reaction to its advances. Many of the well-meaning public art projects of the past thirty years have served only to paper over the cracks in the social fabric of the state, making their authors complicit with the very same ideologies they oppose. The public art works for the 2020s will likely be more private than public too, and as Tom Morton observes strolling through art-fuelled place-making projects, this renders them susceptible to all the nepotistic corruption of their sponsors.
No absolution in sight
Who will be the winners of the post-pandemic art world? The short answer is simple: the same actors who were ahead at the outset. The shaken market for art commodities, for art audiences and for art education will find ways to consolidate. Where it innovates, it will seek to reduce its dependence on human factors, as is the case after every economic crash. The migration online has already provided a model that will at once allow big brands to maintain their market leads and to cut costs, and one should expect that this tendency will soon enough evolve into a profitable proposition.
If the art world fails in making its pleas to the public, philanthropists and collector-speculators, we may see a reduced demand for art, and therefore for artists, in the medium term. Were the arts subject to the same supply and demand rules as the rest of the labour market, art schools would see fewer applicants, museums and galleries would eventually pay their talent better, and the commercial art world would lose some of its allure.
But in the ensuing recession, the life of an artist may only grow in allure. Earlier this year, the UK’s Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that those studying at art and design schools achieve lower lifetime earnings than their peers who don’t go to university at all. Yet art school admissions have been rising every year: a calling for art disregards the wallet, often at its peril. And for those whose wallets are impervious to crisis, an arts education becomes an increasingly attractive dumping ground for ne’er-do-well failsons (and daughters) of the 1%, similar to the function of monasteries and nunneries in ages past for absorbing excess and unproductive elites.
The art world’s perennial internal crisis will not come to an end as a result of the pandemic. Greta Thunberg, finding that her pet cause has been overshadowed by at least two other headline-grabbing crises, exhorts us to “Fight every crisis”. But just as ‘Wars on X’ have had diminishing returns, we lack the attention span to sustain attention demanded by the layering of crises.
For the art world and its pandemics, it may learn some lessons from them, but it may not find it in its heart to share them. We need only to look to Mary Wakefield for confirmation: she shared her Covid-19 illness with her husband Dominic Cummings, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s principal political advisor. Given that their quarantine-breaking cross-country trip met with public furore and an ill-afforded political crisis, it may have served Wakefield better to wave the experience off with a simple “I’m fine, thanks.”
Cover image: There will be no Miracles Here, Nathan Coley, 2007. Photograph Ghost of Kuji/Flickr.
How the myth of the Romantic artist has shaped the way we work, and how it could define working habits of the post-pandemic world.
Au déboulé garçon pointe ton numéro
Pour gagner ainsi le salaire
D’un énorme jour utilitaire
Métro, boulot, bistro, mégots, dodo, zéro.
Hurry boy punch in your number
To earn the pay
Of this great productive day
Subway, work, diner, fag-ends, kip, nothing.
Pierre Béarn, extract from Couleurs d’usine, 1951
Almost fifty years separate the Paris riots of 1968 and the opening of the first WeWork office – but both events could prove useful in preparing for the next revolution in our working lives, which may have already begun.
Under pandemic-induced lockdown, the world of work has experienced dramatic change. Many workers have already lost their jobs, with no guaranteed return. Up to 1.5 billion workers have spent the past months on government-supported garden leaves. Many more are finding ways to work from their kitchens or bedrooms. Only for those whose work has been deemed essential, it’s business as usual – save perhaps for a new level of anxiety and risk.
The systemic shock has led to calls for a wholesale reconfiguration of conditions of labour and reevaluation of the role of work in our lives. While some changes, for example the increase in popularity of home-working, are almost inevitable, it is unlikely that the Covid-19 recovery plan will bring about the labour revolution heralded by Karl Marx. Instead, any significant changes are likely to follow the same patterns that shaped work in the past century, when the labour market adapted to shocks like the aftermath of the Second World War or the 2008 global financial crisis.
The Romantic myth of the 19th century bohemian artist-intellectual has been the underappreciated blueprint for evolutions in the labour settlement. The Baudelairean flâneur lifestyle is echoed in the design of ‘gig’ work Intellectual creativity is a key commodity of the knowledge economy. The 21st century office environment itself emulates an artistic workshop.
For all its promise of glamour and freedom, the mythical artistic lifestyle is riven with insecurity, anxiety, and competition, while offering only a simulation of release from the demands of capitalism. And yet, artists have often been keen to forego security in pursuit of autonomy, often to breaking point. They volunteer to work longer hours in damp studios on a patchwork of poorly-paying projects whose main reward is often the unquantifiable sense of social relevance or peer recognition.
As capitalism has continually exploited artists’ willingness to make sacrifices in pursuit of their desires, understanding how this mythology plays itself out in the labour marketplace will be key in negotiating the role of labour in the coming months and years.
Eat, work, sleep, repeat
Métro, Boulot, Dodo, the sarcastic slogan of the 1968 Paris protests, roughly translated as Commute, Work, Sleep, encapsulated a central demand of France’s general strikes: liberation from the drudgery of monotonous work. In the decades prior, Europe overcame the economic losses of the Second World War, fueling and eventually fulfilling mass consumer demand.
In fact, the worker’s perennial struggle for dignity, good pay and equitable working conditions had never been fulfilled, despite the economic boom of the swinging sixties. The intoxication with consumption went some way to alleviate the inequalities that lingered in post-war Western societies, but these effects could only be short-lived. Like yin and yang, as consumption grew, so inevitably did pressures on productivity and profit, demanding new sacrifices of the workforce.
This rise of consumer culture also had its detractors amongst the intellectual classes who saw it as hollow and unfulfilling. Indeed, commodity capitalism was one of the central concerns of the March 1968 student occupation of a Paris university campus. Concerns over teaching conditions and a heavy-handed police intervention were a perfect catalyst for the demonstrations to spread to the streets, winning the support of fellow students, artists, and public intellectuals.
Pierre BourdieuPierre Bourdieu, The Rules of Art : Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field, 1992 traces the intellectual opposition to capitalism’s uniformity to the 19th century idea of the bohemian artist. The emancipated, carefree and intoxicated antics of the Montmartre circle painters like Henri de Touluse-Lautrec or the bad-boy of poetry Arthur Rimbaud have been emulated and caricatured since. The artistic class rejected the bourgeois pursuit of status and uniformity, favouring instead autonomy and authenticity.
For the artist, this meant a reluctant rejection of the spoils of progress: comfort could not be compatible with true freedom. This ideal, as old as the Romantic poet himself, continued to influence avant-garde artistic movements of the 20th century and shaped intellectual attitudes of the French academy.
In Paris, the particularly French phenomenon of sympathy strikes helped factory workers seize the moment of student unrest to articulate their desire for improved working conditions and pay. Soon, the discord escalated to a wave of nationwide strikes involving all major industries. Workers joined the student marches, and by May 1968, the entire country’s economy came to a standstill.
The two emancipatory desires of labour and intellect become entangled and indistinguishable in historical memory of 1968. Portrayals, amongst them Bernardo Bertolucci’s film The Dreamers in which the very electric atmosphere of Paris births late-night conversations about political film, heroic banner-waving, and love triangles, give the impression that the protests were Western Europe’s last truly universal liberation movement.
In reality, the ideological objectives of the students and the labour force had little in common. Workers were sympathetic to the students’ protest against France’s class divisions or loss of individual autonomy, but this alone would not have led them to down tools. The intellectual elites could not have in earnest acted as the representatives of the working class either. By late May 1968, the labour unions settled for a 10% pay rise, and workers returned to the factories. The student protest inevitably died down too, arguably without achieving its goals.
Choice, freedom, autonomy
Adjustments in the relationship between labour and capital have been a periodic feature of market economies since the industrial revolution. This moment is relevant today not merely because the 1968 general strikes brought industry to its knees much as our Covid-19 furlough economy is doing now, but because its mythical status has helped to define the nature of work in ways which only became evident in the 21st century.
1968 is symbolically important because of the way it involved artists, students and intellectuals along the factory workers. The short-lived collusion of workers and intellectuals came to an end before it had time to develop a common language, but it lingers in contemporary consciousness.
In response to 1968, capitalism embraced the challenge of providing each individual with precisely the set of freedoms and conditions they were willing to bargain for. According to sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello,Luc Boltanski, Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, 1999 the demands of 19th century artists were finally met in the synthesis of the authenticity and labour dialectic. Post-1968 capitalism conceded levels of individual autonomy that would have been unthinkable to Bourdieu’s bohemian.
The invisible hand of the market provided an efficient pricing mechanism for balancing mainstream values and true individual authenticity. To those who could not afford this transaction outright, it exposed the capitalist condition’s inherent denial of authenticity and autonomy and offered a substitute.
For the worker, the transactional nature of the new settlement manifested itself in the accelerating cycle of consumption and production of choice. For a generation that forgot the suffering and inequalities of the Second World War, labour was no longer merely a means of survival. Choice became the driving force in the development of markets and diversification of consumer tastes, as well as the neoliberal policies and economic environment that nourished them. Deregulation and developments in technology made it possible for mass-produced goods and services to reach consumers in forms which satisfied this taste for choice. According to Noam Chomsky,Edward Herman, Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, 1988 advertising, whose power grew with the reach of television, forced individuals to behave irrationally, redirecting their will and desires precisely where they would be fulfilled for profit.
The artist was left none the better off either. Whereas for the bohemian, authenticity could come from a simple act of opting out from consumption, now freedom was reconstituted as dependent on exercising choices in an authentic fashion. The triumph of choice is that it offered a semblance of freedom and control, delivering to each individual an experience matching their own price point.
Tipping the pyramid
The bohemian ideals of freedom and authenticity could now permeate the factory and the office too. Management theories propose a plethora of ways to motivate workers. Abraham Maslow’s classic pyramid hierarchy of needs, for example, suggests that an individual’s most basic requirements – sustenance, shelter, safety – must be satisfied before they seek intellectual or emotional fulfillment. The worker’s salary, then, first secures sustenance and shelter, while safety is a matter of working conditions. When these are adequate, the worker is free to exercise individual choices in pursuit of self-actualisation, in a process that is extrinsic to work itself.
To the worker-consumer of the late 20th century, work is thus only a means to acquire freedoms. Any positive side-effects of the worker’s emotional or intellectual fulfillment outside of the workplace, such as increased productivity, are returned to the workplace voluntarily.
But what if it turned out that one of Maslow’s human needs could be played off against another? Could the engaged, fulfilled worker be compelled to labour with the same productivity for a lower salary in return for enhanced self-actualisation potential? What if this self-actualisation could also become part of labour itself, rather than a private good? And what, perhaps, if the self-actualisation could be made to reproduce and reinforce itself, at no great cost to the employer?
Against a backdrop of weakening social and family bonds, the 21st century workplace is a perfectly promising arena for the pursuit of belonging and self-actualisation. Those workers lucky enough to have been freed from the drudgery of the factory line by the West’s move away from manufacturing into the knowledge economy now look to their employers for recognition, validation, and even emotional fulfilment.
The ethos of the bohemian artist – think now of the 1960s Manhattan warehouse loft – came handy in shaping the corporation’s response. Team building exercises and paintball games complemented structural innovations that would nurture the individual. New ideologies of work, manifested in the freedom-inducing, open-plan, warehouse-style offices, encouraged the flow of emotion as much as of information.
In No Collar,Andrew Ross, No-collar: The Humane Workplace and Its Hidden Costs, 2004 an account of the American workplace at the turn of the 21st century, Andrew Ross observed that when the New York’s startup scene made the break from the cubicle office of corporate America, employees valued the open social and cultural design of the workplace for its potential to fulfil their human aspirations, sometimes ahead of the economic value of their own work. Ross describes one media company’s employees as ‘artists’ who made for better workers precisely because they had internalised the transaction between personal fulfilment and monetary rewards. Just like the bohemians, they were cheaper and more committed to their work.
By the time the dotcom bubble burst, its artist-workers realised that their sacrifices served only to reinforce corporate America’s reach. The ‘perks’ of airy offices – soon the standard model around the globe – did more to extract productivity than they did to free the workers.
The freedom-through-work paradigm turned out to be illusory, just as choice and consumption had earlier. By the 2008 financial crisis, the worker had again lost control of the only recently-earned privilege of trading pay for authenticity, and the human need for individuation was fair trade both in the workplace and in the private sphere.
Pierre Béarn’s poem Couleurs d’usine, which inspired the 1968’s protest slogan, inadvertently prophesied another aspect of work that came true in the 21st century: the factory, commute, and sleep intensified to fast food, fag-ends, and eventually led to zero.
The foundation of today’s ‘zero hours’ and ‘gig’ economies is the transaction between freedom and morality. To participate in the market, the emancipated worker agrees to avert their gaze from the more egregious injustices of capitalism, such as the ongoing colonial exploitation of developing economies or gender inequality. Morality thus becomes a matter of transaction, and the individual may further consent to become the subject of some form of systemic injustice, in return for another consideration.
To the now ‘casual’ worker keen to recover from the post-2008 depression in the labour market, flexibility and mobility are presented as synonymous with control and success. A portfolio career of multiple part-time or gig jobs could, in principle, be a way to avoid the malaise of alienation from labour, or offer space for family commitments, study or other pursuits.
This appearance of control and choice distract the worker from the costs of non-traditional labour: the often low earnings, unregulated working conditions, and lack of stability. This makes micro-entrepreneurialism a popular political aim; in the UK, for example, the welfare and education systems encourage self-employment without regard for the viability of the underlying business plans. In the early 2000s, a plethora of freelance web designers, personal trainers, delivery riders – and artists – were to be the masters of their own lots.
This freedom had to be paid for – not even the bohemian would have expected such choice and autonomy to come free. In the algebra of emancipation, this is a step back: while Bourdieu’s artists could in principle opt out from exploitative capitalist conventions, the contemporary worker must first labour in the extractive system to earn the right to distance himself from it.
Certainly, that Romantic model appears more attractive. The seductive myth of the artist – late on rent but always up for a party – gave the impression that the bohemian lifestyle was shielded from destitution. In fact, many of those bohemian lifestyles and the intellectual productivity they afforded were bank-rolled with other people’s money. The archetype of the Montmartre artistic scene Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, for example, was an aristocrat. William S. Borroughs, one of the great American bohemians, came from a well-established family, and Jack Kerouac, the ultimate bohemian drifter, actively fuelled speculation on his noble roots.
Were Bourdieu’s bohemian to swap places with his 21st century successor, he might find the economic precarity-as-lifestyle a lot less alluring. Despite the harsh realities of maintaining a sense of autonomy while making a living in late capitalism, artists have continued to reproduce the Romantic myths of the bohemian visionary. The explosion of the international art market that brought stardom and wealth to a handful of artists who acquired the status of rock stars, making the myth of an artistic life still more desirable.
Altermodern, the 2009 Tate Triennial curated by Nicholas Bourriaud lauded contemporary artists as hyper-connected, interdisciplinary, multicultural mobile agents that, today, in light of the fraying of globalism, looks like jaw-dropping naivité. Never mind the damage this idea has done to a generation of artistic cadres in promising pseudo-intellectual satisfaction in return for an air fare: 21st century capitalism would adapt this artistic mythos to create a new value translation between labour, freedom, and creativity.
Everyone is creative
“Everyone is creative,” proclaimed a 2001 paper by the UK’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport. In New Labour’s optimistic vision, creativity and the creative economy were Cool Britannia’s unique selling strengths. Britain was to become a nation of games designers, filmmakers, web creators, and – in preferably smaller numbers – artists, all ready to export their creativity.
Heavy public and private investment in creative education, film, games, and design industries followed. As a perverse by-product of this supply-side ideology, by the latter years of the 2000s, London’s coffee shops were filled with graphic designers, but they were the ones making the coffee, rather than hot-desking over flat whites.
Creativity, independence and enterprise, embodied by the creative startup founder folded over a laptop in the corner of the high-brand-values coffee shop, endured as an aspirational ideal for all work. Startup by startup, everything would be disrupted, improved, re-monetised. Taxis, hotels, banking, shopping and dating all changed beyond recognition.
Disappointingly, all these revolutions did not render work obsolete. But WeWork, the most notorious disruptor of late, was poised to reshape the world of work itself forever. Its weapons? Flexibility, creativity, and free beer. WeWork’s central idea, inspired by founder Adam Neumann’s childhood at an Israeli kibbutz, is that every worker should find fulfilment in a collective experience of labour without losing their sense of authenticity. The office couldn’t offer the rewards of proximity to the land, but it could mimic another rural utopia: the artistic colony.
At the turn of the 19th century, artists flocked to scenic villages of the Netherlands, Germany and France, where they could commune with nature and with their muses. Romantic art is rife with images of comradery between peasants and intellectuals; the countryside, far away from the bourgeoisie’s petty concerns, was the perfect setting for both intellectual and physical labour.
Just like the art colony, the WeWork office blurs the boundaries between toil and art, except where the artists once played at farming, office workers now get to pretend to be artists. This would be a fair exchange, except that where the painters at the colonies at Worspede, Skagen or Nida would derive inspiration from the countryside but stop short of performing any agricultural labour, the office workers are required to perform their traditional office duties and now hand over the results of their creativity to their employer too.
By providing an environment that, like the rural idyll, stimulates the body and the mind, WeWork creates spaces in which workers become entrapped: their days stretch out in a rhythm of coffee meetings, community events and pinball tournaments. And WeWork is only a shadow of the office design trends pioneered by technology giants over a decade earlier: the Googleplex, for example, boasts swimming pools and laundry facilities, and the Apple Park is larger than the Pentagon.
Scale can be blinding – WeWork has a portfolio of almost 850 properties – and it conceals the fundamental differences between the working conditions enjoyed by employees at Google and those hot-desking for a startup. Those Googleplex swimming pools – just as the salaries and healthcare plans of the ranks of software developers – come at significant cost. Few employers can justify such expense in the name of talent retention alone. For the majority of office workers, colourful sofas and table football games have to do.
To create spaces that adapt to their users’ needs, nurturing and shaping their productive impulses – that is to increase productivity – the office behemoth hired an army of architects, including the Danish star Bjarke Ingels who had co-designed Google’s New York HQ. For all of WeWork’s radical architectural ambitions, it could have got by with a lot less. In designing its Toronto offices, the software giant Autodesk used a generative design artificial intelligence system to produce interior layouts that took into account the needs of all parts of the business, down to the positions of succulents on the desks. Philosopher Theodor AdornoTheodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, 1978 observed that even anti-bourgeois sentiment – the drive for authenticity – undergoes a process of standardisation. Artificial creativity is now indistinguishable from human creativity.
WeWork’s interiors are in fact banal copies of the coffee bars already familiar to their startup clients, shiny evolutions of last decade’s open-plan budget spaces which even accounting firms now want to escape from, softly infused with brand-appropriate representations of what an artist’s ‘creative space’ might look like. Luckily for WeWork’s tenants, the mere promise of creative freedom seems to satisfy much of an individual’s desire for it. The worker’s implied ability to endlessly customise their working environment is surprisingly fulfilling.
The language of creativity has permeated the world of office work. The ‘media-style offices’ of the 2000s are now ‘creative’ or ‘maker’ spaces. But when the employee shapes their environment, they do it just like an artist does in their studio: not to be happier, but in order to make more work.
Paradoxically, the more creativity is put to the service of the corporation, the less space there is for personal creativity, for art. Once work has commodified creativity, it could be leased back to the individual. Back at the art colony, the fruits of creativity were rewards in their own right, but in today’s office they literally become a trading card in a salary negotiation: a ‘creative marketing executive’ will accept lower pay than a ‘marketing officer’. Once again, to be a ‘creative’ artist became incompatible with being a worker.
To the truly bohemian artist, this would have been welcome news. In Geothe’s seminal novella Sorrows of Young Werther, the archetypal Romantic protagonist – a poet consumed by unrequited love – takes a position at the fringes of good society, his talent alone distinguishing him from the self-obsessed bourgeoisie or the non-intellectual idleness of aristocracy. When he is forced into employment, he suffers it with the greatest indignity, and prefers to fall back on his inheritance instead.
Should we have sympathy for Werther’s 21st century descendants? If we believe in the bohemian myth, art should be precisely the arena where existential limitations are overcome with the help of the muses. And art has of course evolved in line with – sometimes ahead of – its surroundings. Whether the creative industries comprising thousands of young Werthers graduating art and design schools every year can survive in the style of Goethe’s hero is a matter of supply and demand, education policy, and individual choice.
Today’s workers are encouraged to act like Werther, but without being offered even a shadow of the privileges he enjoys. Creativity requires an element of transgression – a principle understood by innovators and entrepreneurs – and with this carries risk. When workers are asked to apply creativity to tasks that are bound by rules they themselves have no power to negotiate, they have to internalise the corresponding dangers of failure. Werther’s end, despite Geothe’s best intentions, was pitiful.
The factory and the museum
The factory can be creative too. The BMW car plant in Leipzig designed by Zaha Hadid and opened in 2005 has received praise from architectural and business communities alike. Open and translucent, the building resembles a futuristic airport terminal more than a production line warehouse. Half-assembled car chassis gracefully glide over offices, lobbies and cafeterias as they travel to different parts of the production line.
This conveyor belt parade of cars places the product in physical proximity to all workers. Administrators, marketers and accountants all see the fruits of their labour, and this must inspire the sense of accomplishment one can read into early utopian visions of manufacturing.
Hadid’s aesthetics of glass, polished concrete and matte white surfaces emulates the atmosphere of a museum or a laboratory, in which new knowledge and ideas are effortlessly conceived. Critic Mikkel Bolt RasmussenMikkel Bolt Rasmussen, Globalization, Architecture and Containers in After the Great Refusal, Zero Books, 2018 notes that the transparent, single-level and circular nature of the production line encourages all workers to contribute to the BMW myth of great design. “It is not enough to tighten screws, you have to speak up, and be part of the collective enterprise. Workers must participate.”
The idea of blurring boundaries between a worker’s formal responsibilities and the wider success of the enterprise was pioneered in Japanese car manufacturing. Toyota prides itself on its culture of kaizen, ‘continuous improvement’, in which incremental changes to working practices contribute to increases in productivity and cost savings. In less hierarchical Western societies, workers are less likely to be incentivised by the promise of rises in profitability alone, but their contribution can be encouraged by symbolic means just the same. Zaha Hadid’s open-thinking factory harnesses the human impulses of creativity and self expression just like the WeWork office.
In what is surely an ironic twist to architectural histories, the fate of factories is to be converted into museums. London’s Tate Modern took over a disused power plant, Barcolona’s CaixaForum used to be a textile factory, and the city of Brussels is currently converting a former Citoën plant into a contemporary art museum.
Work is transforming again right now. During the Covid-19 lockdowns, some workers have had to carry on as normal, some have found themselves surplus to requirements, and others are developing Zoom eye.
As workspaces reopen, we may have an opportunity to renegotiate which of our fundamental needs we are prepared to transact with. While it’s clear that safety – in Maslow’s hierarchy adjacent to nourishment – will become paramount, we should expect that this will come at a cost.
In classic supply-demand economics, one might have expected that jobs associated with higher risks – such as healthcare and public-facing services – should attract high wages. However, what we colloquially refer to as unskilled labour – which is often anything but – has been in such high supply in the past decades that the market doesn’t need to resort to reward systems that actually cost anything at all.
In the last three months, posters with and messages of support for healthcare workers hand-made by children have been appearing in windows across the UK. In Italy, communities have come together to laud their frontline workers in song. While carers and nurses remain some of the lowest-paid professional groups in the developed world, the public displays of hero-worship are society’s contribution to those workers’ sense of dignity and satisfaction in their labour.
The exchange rate here is cruel. To achieve balance, pay plus job satisfaction must be equal with the value of the labour itself and of any exceptional risk. As long as healthcare systems struggle to adequately protect healthcare workers, short of a pay rise, the children’s rainbows and musical ovations are the only compensation on offer.
Again, the self-esteem of essential workers can be commodified. It should not be a surprise that, just as WeWork was able to hijack individual creativity for profit, so can art. In East London, artist Peter Liversidge has been hand-making and installing hundreds of posters with messages of support for frontline workers in publicly visible sites. A touching gesture for sure, but as long as Liversidge’s displays contribute to the collective recognition of the value of essential work, they also syphon off some of the public appreciation for the workers’ sacrifices to the artist himself. Liversidge received significant media attention for his action, and his poster interventions are already in the inventory of the commercial gallery which represents him.
To virus-proof all workplaces as economies reopen will be a gargantuan task. What we know from previous shocks is that they demand flexibility of the workforce and encourage technological replacement of manual labour. Just when the pandemic-induced unemployment figures reach a peak, this tendency may reduce the demand for labour further. This technological evolution will likely contribute to the growth in inequality and encourage exploitation of those workers who are in the weakest bargaining position. There are, however, historical precedents which could be explored in the face of the labour crisis.
In the wake of the Great Depression, the most profound economic downturn of the past century, the economist John Maynard Keynes proposed that technological developments would allow a 15-hour working week abundant with leisure by 2030. Keynesian economics, a cornerstone of the early welfare state, enjoyed a resurgence after the 2008 financial crisis. Today’s governments facing not only flagging markets but also stagnant and hungry labour markets may look to Keynes for inspiration.
One of the settlements of the Great Depression was the introduction of the five-day working week. Such was the excess supply of labour that workers agreed to share what jobs there were, accepting lower pay for working fewer hours.
We could now be looking forward to a three-day weekend – a small number of companies have already been trialling such ideas and Finland had floated it as a potential policy even before the Covid-19 crisis struck. It is perhaps no coincidence that Keynes was the founding chair of what became Arts Council England, the UK’s public arts funding agency. This could almost have been a bohemian dream.
Zoom out a little
All along, a class of workers has been doing just fine in the crisis. For those engaged in dematerialised labour, a Zoom account has been enough to carry on. Marketers, project managers, software developers, account executives – but also customer service staff and teachers – have had to find ways to move their work online. For some, this is a realisation of an old dream. The sofa beats the commute, particularly when the newly-reopened metro already looks too crowded to feel safe.
In an attempt to ensure continued productivity, a handful of employers have instituted rigorous and potentially invasive performance monitoring measures such as policing workers’ use of social media and tracking their keystroke rates. These invasions are nothing new – corporations have always been able to read their employees’ browsing histories and Slack threads – and those businesses which have not visibly stepped up surveillance measures can rely on the threat of the panopticon webcam.
While a physical office enforces a rhythm of work – log in, email, catch-up, make a call – working from home makes some of these actions appear more arbitrary than previously. The new rules may take some adapting to, and some industries appear well prepared already. Twitter, which has announced that all of its 4600 employees will be able to continue to work from home indefinitely when the Covid-19 crisis has passed, is emblematic of the technology industry’s investment in remote working technologies and management techniques. This won’t be an option for everyone, but staying productive at home can be learned. Here again, we might look for tips to artists who have been finding inspiration alone in their studios for centuries.
Indeed, the Romantic artist could be the perfect Zoom worker: self-sufficient, inspired, determined, resilient, charismatic, and already used to spending most of their time without supervision or support. The recent global explosion of the art industry also means that art workers are used to collaborating with colleagues around the world, adjusting their expectations to new environments and conditions. If artists, whose education rarely includes specific training on managing studio time and international working can do this, couldn’t everyone?
What the Zoom workplace doesn’t offer is the social reinforcement of team meetings and pub outings with colleagues that are part of the implicit contract of employment. Some of this can move online – teams can spend their lunch hours playing Animal Crossing together, and some haven’t yet tired of Zoom cocktail hours – but the ability to mediate social relationships through physical space will be lost.
It turns out that artists are struggling too. After the initial tsunami of online initiatives, performances to camera and solidarity campaigns, many are feeling the erosion of their social networks just as much detrimental to their practices as the cancellation of exhibitions and projects that has impacted their already precarious livelihoods. Rachel Whiteread, one of Britain’s foremost sculptors, admitted that she is struggling to find a reason to work: “the things that make us human have been taken away from us, things like choice and decision.”
For now, we may have to amuse ourselves with customising our video conference backgrounds – the LA County Museum of Art handily released a range of images – and arranging our bookshelves to look suitably impressive. Come winter, we might have to ask just how starving artists have been getting on in their unheated studios all this time.
Cover image: The Artist’s Studio, Horace Vernet, c. 1820.