The trauma is real, but we could try to dance our way out of it

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.”

Photo: JD Hancock/fickr

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 Omicton, 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.[1]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’s[2]Ivan 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.


Nina Power has offered an alternative account of the same event.
Main image: Brent Moore/flickr

Notes[+]

On not being led by The Science

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.[1]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.[2]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.[3]Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific FactsLaboratory 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.[4]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.[5]Nathan Ballantyne, ‘Epistemic Trespassing’, Mind 128, no. 510 (2019): 367–95, https://doi.org/10.1093/mind/fzx042. [6]Nathan Ballantyne, ‘Recent Work on Intellectual Humility: A Philosopher’s Perspective’, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 5 September 2021, … Continue reading

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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.[7]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.[8]Ari Schulman and Brendan Foht, ‘Is “Natural Immunity” Better Than Vaccination?’, The New Atlantis (blog), 20 December 2021, … Continue reading 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.

Photo: No Swan So Fine/Wikimedia Commons

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,[9]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 … Continue reading despite gaping errors in the authors’ analysis being pointed out by a mere journalist.[10]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.[11]Fraser Nelson, ‘My Twitter Conversation with the Chairman of the Sage Covid Modelling Committee | The Spectator’, The Spectator(blog), 18 December 2021, … Continue reading

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.[12]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.

Photo: Number 10/Flickr

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,[13]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:[14]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. 

Photo: Ivan Radic/Flickr

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.[15]Sam Freedman, ‘New Approach Needed to Avoid Covid Data Disputes and Modelling Misunderstanding’, The Institute for Government (blog), 22 December 2021, … Continue reading 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.[16]‘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?

A live feed of Covid-19 data provided by an amateur YouTube user.

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.[17]David Dunning and Nathan Ballantyne, ‘Which Experts Should You Listen to during the Pandemic?’, Scientific American Blog Network, 8 June 2020, … Continue reading

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.[18]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.

Notes[+]

Gay time, memory, and the death drive

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.”[1]‘World Will Be Same but Worse after “banal” Virus, Says Houellebecq’, France 24, 4 May 2020, … Continue reading

Pandemic, epidemic

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.

Dino Fetscher and Ben Daniels in The Normal Heart at National There, London. Photo by Helen Maybanks

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 Knives[2]David Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (New York: Vintage Books, 1991). or Derek Jarman’s elegy Blue[3]Derek 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 play by 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? 

Derek Jarman, Blue, 1993 (except).

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. 

The Inheritance at The Young Vic, 2018. Photo Simon Annand.

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 Sin[4]Peter 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,[5]Nick Levine and Russell T. Davies, ‘It’s A Sin Creator Russell T Davies: “Cast Gay as Gay”’, AnOther, 20 January 2021, … Continue reading 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.

It’s a Sin, dir. Russell T. Davies, 2021.

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.[6]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. 

No future

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,[7]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”,[8]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.”[9]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,[10]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.[11]Todd Verow, Frisk, 1995.

Trailer for Todd Verow’s adaptation of Dennis Cooper’s ‘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 Gift[12]Louise 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.

Louise Hogarth, The Gift, documentary (Dream Out Loud Productions, 2003)

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,[13]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 … Continue reading children are synonymous with politics.

Part of a user profile on the Hinge dating app

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,[14]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. 

DIS, UBI: The Straight Truvada, 2018, video, 4’52″, 2018,

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.[15]Libby Brooks and Jessica Murray, ‘Spate of Attacks across UK Sparks Fear among LGBTQ+ Community’, The Guardian, 29 August 2021, sec. UK news, … Continue reading 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)[16]Trudy Ring, ‘Here Are the 43 Trans Americans Killed in 2021 So Far’, Advocate, 31 October 2021, … Continue reading which one recently described as a ‘Holocaust’.[17]Greame Massie, ‘Whistleblower and Transparent Creator Joins Hundreds in Netflix Walkout’, The Independent, 20 October 2021, sec. Culture, … Continue reading

Death, performed

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,[18]‘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.[19]Eir Nolsoe, ‘International Survey: How Supportive Would Britons Be of a Family Member Coming Out?’, YouGov, 31 August 2021, … Continue reading 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.[20]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.[21]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.[22]Jane Coaston, ‘New Evidence Shows the Pulse Nightclub Shooting Wasn’t about Anti-LGBTQ Hate’, Vox, 5 April 2018, … Continue reading 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.

Matthew Shepard

Much has been written about the deployment of vulnerability in the identity politics of the LGBTQ+ community, sometimes in needlessly combative terms,[23]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.

Notes[+]

Value in Numbers

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

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

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

The end of civilisation as we know it

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

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

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

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

Too big to fail

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

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

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

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

Post-truth art

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

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

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

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

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

Art simulating itself

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

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

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

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

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

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

Token aesthetics

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

EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS (Beeple, 2021)

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

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

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

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

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


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

Notes[+]

OnlyFans on Strike

When capital protests workers

The OnlyFans saga lasted a mere week. On 19 August, the service whose 130 million users brought projected sales exceeding $5 billion this year,[1]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.[2]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 suggested[3]Owen 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,[4] 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.[5]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.[6]Joshua Clover, Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings (Verso, 2016), chap. 1.

Made in Dagenham, 2010

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.[7]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.

Notes[+]

The Taliban in Disneyland: Encounters with Hyperreality

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.

Taliban take over amusement park and gym in Kabul, August 2021.

In a series of essays published in 1991, Jean Baudrillard suggested that the Gulf War never happened.[1]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.

video still
Still from Michel Auder, Gulf War TV War, 1991 (edited 2017).
Hi8 video and mini-DV transferred to digital video, 102′. Courtesy of the artist and Martos Gallery, New York.

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.[2]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.

Clip from Monira Al Qadiri, Behind the Sun, 2013. Video, colour, sound, 10′. Courtesy of the artist

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 1976[3]Jean 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, … Continue reading), 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.[4]Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. by S F Glaser, Body, in Theory (University of Michigan Press, 1994), pp. 12–14.


Cover image: Lee / fickr

Notes[+]

Review: The Class Ceiling

The Class Ceiling 
Why it Pays to be Privileged

Sam Friedman
Daniel Laurison

Published by Policy Press, 2020
ISBN 9781447336068

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes[+]

Review: Deserting from the Culture Wars

book cover

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

Published by MIT Press, 2020
ISBN 9780262362955

book cover

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

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

Sven Lütticken, Performing Culture Otherwise

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

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

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

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

Images from the book launch. Photo: BAK

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

Tom Holert, Transfixing the Fascist Episteme

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

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

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

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

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

Jonas Staal, Contagion Propaganda

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

Planet of the Humans, film still

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

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

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

Rose Hammer, The Radical Flu

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

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

La Colonie in Paris Photo: La Colonie/Facebook

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

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

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

Rose Hammer

Geert Lovink, The Invisible Culture Wars

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

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

This review first appeared in Third Text Online.

Notes[+]

Pyramid scheme meets bubble

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. 

Not the best foundation to grow an economy from. Photo: joiseyshowaa/flickr

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. 

bitcoin
Image: Jernej Furman/flickr

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.

Nyan Cat, a record-breaking NFT feline.

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.

Cover image: CPallier/Pixabay

At the limits of representation

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Main photo: Paul Campbell/Flickr.

Notes[+]

Art in solidarity with itself

solidarity mural

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. 

Queens Museum Pantry
The La Jornada Together We Can Food Pantry at Queens Museum. Photo: the Queens Museum.

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, the statue 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.[1]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?

Marc Quinn, A Surge of Power (Jen Reid) in Bristol. Photo: Sam Saunders/Wikimedia Commons

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.[2]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.

#SolidarityAwards

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.

A banner from the Tate Enterprises strikes in August 2020
A banner from the Tate Enterprises strikes in August 2020. Photo: Twitter.

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.

Poster campaign by White Pube. Photo: Twitter.

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.[3]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 paper[4]Friedman, 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 Esquerre suggest a reason for this.[5]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. 


This text was originally published by Arts of the Working Class.
It is part of a series that begun with At the limits of representation.
Thanks to María Inés Plaza Lazo for editorial input.

Cover image: Dan Manrique Arias. Photo: Terence Faircloth/flickr

Notes[+]

Defund the museum. Ok, then What?

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.

Just one of the many shocking – but not surprising – allegations of museum malpractice.

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?

Eva & Adele: fully embracing the institution. Photo: Penny 12 / Wikimedia Commons

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 arts industry: is not so keen on the industry of it.

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?

Fatima may want to think about cyber for just a minute

Who decides how much culture is enough?

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.

A National Cyber Security Centre campaign from 2019.

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.

Some of the meme wars following Fatima’s misleading reappearance.

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. 

Art begat art: the cultural industry reminds us how indispensable is in helping to crush the arts industry.

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.

Making the best of a bad situation – culture’s threat to its publics.

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.

A disaster for some, and opportunity for others. Artist Stuart Semple’s Artist Job Centre project may be just one of those that benefit from the chaos.

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.

Skills are cheap; chemistry is expensive

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.

Unskilled, unwelcome

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. 

A version of a popular meme circulating in early 2020.

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. 

Even London’s architecture competes for talent.

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.

Do you want fries with that? The traditional view of value of a liberal arts education. Photo: Robert Couse-Baker

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.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, replica
Anybody can be a ‘creative’. Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, 1918

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. 

If university qualifications were prerequisites for many entry-level white-collar careers only as a result of oversupply of skilled workers, is art school-grade creativity really necessary for careers in marketing, PR or events management, let alone the retail occupations which are the top destination of creative arts graduates

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”. 

Not lacking in creativity: other skills are in short supply, according the the Employer Skills Survey 2017.

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. 

If everyone can be an artist. everywhere can be an art school. A 2017 work by Bob and Roberta Smith. Photo: Loz Pycock.

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.

Eric Gill, Ariel between Wisdom and Gaiety
Eric Gill, Ariel between Wisdom and Gaiety Photo: Mike Knell

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.

Art and craft back together: atelier Eric Van Hove in Marrakech.

Art school students – increasingly seeing themselves as customers and conscious of the value of their education to their future careers – have placed pressure on schools to provide ‘professional’ training. The response has been mixed, and continuing development opportunities for artists are scarce. All the same, artists are finding ways to practice: in the US, almost 40% do not have degree education at all.

Skills are cheap

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.

There will be no miracles here

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.

Arrows everywhere. A Google Arts and Culture virtual tour of Guggenheim New York.

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.

All change

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?  

A desire for change was voiced in the statements of museum directors, countless editorials, and plenty of Zoom seminars with artists. A selection of art press headlines in early April proclaimed “the end of the art world as we know it,” that “the art world has the opportunity to be truly open” and that “life after the coronavirus will be very different.” A curator even observed that “before the lockdown, the public was agitating for a revolution in […] museums.”

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.

No premonitions

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. 

Please believe these days will pass
We’ll help you if you help us. A comforting message by artist Mark Tichner next a theatre’s appeal for donations. 

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.

Risk and reward: The New York Times rates artist and loggers amongst the safest of professions.

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.

California Life, Coit Tower, San Francisco
One of the works commissioned by the Works Art Project Administration. California Life, Coit Tower, San Francisco, 1934.

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.

From the artist’s studio to the factory, WeWork, Zoom, and back again

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. 

The student strikes in Paris, May 1968.
The student strikes in Paris, May 1968.

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 Bourdieu[1]Pierre 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. 

Another form of protest. Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, 2003.

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,[2]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,[3]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 Simpson’s Mr Burns agonising over the choice between ketchup and catsup.

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,[4]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.

Hour zero

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. 

Château Malromé
Down and out: Château Malromé, the childhood home of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Photo by Henry Salomé.

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. 

Inner-city pastoral

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. 

Otto Modersohn, Autumn on the Moor, 1895
The artist colony idyll: Otto Modersohn, Autumn on the Moor, 1895.

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 Adorno[5]Theodor 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.

A  WeWork location empty during the Covid-19 pandemic.
A WeWork location empty during the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo Dennis Goodwin.

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.

Werther’s sorrow

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.

Young Werther, 19th century engraving
Young Werther, 19th century German engraving.

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. 

The BMW plant in Leipzig, Zaha Hadid Architects, 2003-05.

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 Rasmussen[6]Mikkel 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.

Essential works

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.

A tribute to healthcare workers in East London.
A tribute to healthcare workers in East London by artist Peter Liversidge.

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. Thera 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 Manyard 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.

Zoom backgrounds offered by LACMA.
Zoom backgrounds offered by LACMA.

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 pracces 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 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.

Notes[+]

Now more than ever

Nixon, Now more than ever

We Need Imagination Now More Than Ever

Now More Than Ever You Need to Cover Phone And Laptop Cameras

The world needs @WHO now more than ever.

Now More Than Ever, We Need To Focus On The Three ‘Be-’s’

Why Walking Matters—Now More Than Ever

Writers: The World Needs You Now More Than Ever

Now more than ever, Every Mind Matters

The world needs designers now more than ever

I need you all NOW more than ever…

Why sleep matters now more than ever

Now more than ever: Let’s do all we can to support the backbone of industry!

“Now More Than Ever”

Now more than ever, we have to be honest about intensive care beds

We Need to Come Together Now More Than Ever

Now More Than Ever, You Need Your PMO

Why media matters now more than ever

ESG matters – now more than ever

Why Branding Matters Now More Than Ever

Why We Need Our Pets Now More Than Ever

The UK needs its minorities now more than ever

Now more than ever, a time for community

Why community is needed now more than ever

We Need the Internet Now More than Ever

warning to stock investors now more than ever

Now, More than Ever, Communicate

Why we need culture now more than ever

System Change: Now More than Ever

Now More Than Ever, Everyone Can Help Support Global Water Access

Keep Gender On The Agenda – Now More Than Ever

Words we need now, more than ever

Now, more than ever, they rely on us.

Right now – more than ever – we need music

Now more than ever, we need quality health reporting in Australia

We need Trusted Digital Identity – now more than ever

Thinking of You – Now More Than Ever.

Compassionate Leadership is Relevant Now More than Ever

Philanthropy Needs To Trust Nonprofits Now More Than Ever

Now more than ever, we need to say in touch

Now more than ever we need fintechs to lead on consumer transparency

Needed Now More Than Ever

We need your help, now more than ever.

‘Now more than ever’ – and we really mean it

We need to be safe, now more than ever

Cornbread. Now, More Than Ever.

Nurses Are Needed Now More Than Ever

Robotics startups need support now more than ever

Now More Than Ever, Help Us Do “Whatever It Takes”

Why we need the arts, now more than ever

Home > Stay at home > Now more than ever

Now, more than ever, love the one you’re with

We need Shabbat now more than ever

Food Banks Need Our Donations, Now More Than Ever

Why We Need Bernie Now More Than Ever

WebOps, Now More Than Ever

Now more than ever, every little helps.

WHY WE NEED THE OUTDOOR SPIRIT NOW MORE THAN EVER

Now More Than Ever, Be Customer-Obsessed

IT IS IMPORTANT NOW MORE THAN EVER!

WHAT LEADERS NEED NOW MORE THAN EVER: A ‘TEAM OF RIVALS’

Now, More Than Ever, is Time to Connect

Now more than ever, we need to channel our historic ‘Seattle Spirit’

We need long-term thinking now more than ever

Cash matters – now more than ever

Social art in antisocial times

It is already nothing short of a journalistic cliché that ‘we need the arts more now than ever’. In the first week of the UK’s lockdown, media were rife with lists of exhibitions and performances to consume from the safety of one’s sofa, alongside tips for home-schooling, and for making do with pasta and tinned beans.

For sure, art offers distraction and respite from daily anxiety, but is this all it’s good for? As we grow wary of pixelated click-through cultural experiences, we should ask art to deliver more of the social and political impacts it has promised. 

B.C. (Before Covid) Art

Alongside the rise of the international art market, the UK’s public arts sphere has undergone a major reconfiguration in the past twenty years. As public funding for the arts shrunk, demands on art to paper over the cracks of austerity grew. Narratives of public good now permeate galleries and Arts Council England’s funding strategy, and one would struggle to find an artist who doesn’t describe their practice as political or at least socially-relevant. Institutions of all sizes and outlooks, from Tate Modern to the small studio collective, have made renewed claims of social relevance, community-focus, and public benefit. 

Cadres of artists and administrators supplied by the ever-expanding art schools threw themselves into the challenge. The arts workforce is characterised by a high degree of employment insecurity, intense competition, and low pay, and is subject to the conditions of exploitation as with labour in other deregulated industries. In this context, the ‘social mission’ is a moral imperative.

What’s been largely taboo is the question of this activity’s effects on society – it is universally assumed that art is an inalienable human need. And from there, only a short leap for the collective art think-tank to argue art’s supreme role in shaping community structures or political discourse. Functions previously held by the state and other forms of civil society migrated to artist-led youth clubs, artist-led adventure playgrounds, artist-led support groups, if not artist-led food banks. 

All these initiatives coexisted happily with the commercially-driven art market and popular mainstream art, occasionally blurring the boundaries or encouraging friendly antagonism. One telling example is artist Christoph Büchel’s 2011 project which turned the prime estate of mega-gallery Hauser and Wirth into the Piccadilly Community Centre, complete with volunteers, knitting circles, and beauty spa treatments for seniors.  

Christoph Buchel, ‘Piccadilly Community Centre’, 2011. Installation view.

First, the galleries closed…

In early March public and commercial galleries and art institutions started suspending their exhibitions and programmes. Before any other public service, it was arts institutions’ In these unprecedented times… emails that flooded my inbox. Before pubs and restaurants closed. Before even SportsDirect closed. 

What does this timing tell us about the role that art institutions play in public life? What knowledge of epidemiology did art administrators have, and why did they lead by example in this act of publicly-minded sacrifice? In the Government’s lock-down rules, art is clearly non-essential labour; more: it is voluntarily redundant. The ‘social’ of social arts is simply not the ‘social’ of social workers; the analogy seems ludicrous now and in retrospective. Who, then, needs the arts, now more than ever?

If art is just a gentle distraction from our daily grievances, then it now finds a captive audience for its pre-recorded online programmes and ad-hoc performances to camera. But this reflective, inspiring or soothing function of art is one that has long been served by blockbuster shows presented by international consortia in exchange for market-determined admission prices and corporate sponsorship. Will the quarantine amount to more than a reconfiguration of the modes of production and consumption of artistic products? The fact that the National Gallery can smoothly transfer its Titian exhibition online should not be seen as a triumph. If yoga studios can thrive on Zoom, so can some forms of art.

Community practice in self-isolation

What about the audiences served, until recently, by art initiatives that truly did put social impact at the forefront? The dozens of programmes in some of England’s least culturally engaged and economically depressed locations supported by Arts Council England’s funding initiative Creative People and Places will likely be subject to wholesale cancellations. Communities and individuals that did benefit from the support created by art practitioners have been left to self-isolation.

The inevitability with which artists have retreated from their community practices will highlight the fundamental problem of mandating art’s social mission: artists are not trained to fill the roles of social or healthcare workers. Social betterment through art cannot be subject to a service level agreement.

It would be callous to suggest that all social art has been without positive effects, particularly against the withdrawal of traditional social support mechanisms. Create London’s White House in Barking, a sui-generis community and art centre, the vegetable garden in Hoxton initiated by artist duo FourthLand, or Ahmet Öğüt’s Silent University which facilitates skills exchange between refugees have all played a part in making our lives collectively a little better.

The White House, Barking

It remains questionable, however, whether arts institutions are best placed to spearhead such initiatives. Why should artists need to be involved in designing community gardens? While artists are for the most part united in a progressive agenda, this strengthens the assumption that their work is socially beneficial and important. Such solidarity and peer approval, however, does not amount to evidence.

It may also become apparent that the withdrawal of artistic labour will have negligible adverse effects for its audiences, and art communities will need to answer a crucial question: was its work ever doing all that much good? Why didn’t the arts help us when we had them?

The arts need you, now more than ever

In absence of good news, popular media have been quick to focus on the life-affirming function of the arts by curating virtual cultural diets. This rally is in contrast with the usual indifference of UK audiences who may or may not have been inclined to visit museums and galleries in easier times. 

In the professional press and in arts social networks, ‘the arts will save you’ quickly turned into a call to ‘save the arts’ as the true economic impact on already underfunded institutions and leagues of precarious workers became apparent. Serpentine Gallery’s artistic director and mega-curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist proposed a new mass art public art initiative to mirror the Franklin D Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration project that would far outstrip Arts Council England’s £190 million support package announced this week.

The economic output of the arts is modest in comparison with, say, the hospitality industry, but its highly educated workforce is exceptionally good at self-organisation and voicing its demands. Whatever settlement art can negotiate, livelihoods will be on the line, organisations will fail, and many careers will be broken. 

Like after any crisis, amongst the survivors will be those who are the most agile, entrepreneurial, stable, or those just too-big-to-fail. Right now, we should not worry about the future of philanthropically-supported museums, private arts foundations, art fairs or commercial galleries. These entities, subject to the laws of competition and capitalist imperatives, will dust off their 2009 playbooks and obscure the human dimension of the extra difficult environment. 

What about the smaller non-profit players? The self-sacrificing volunteerism of the army of arts workers will be put to a test: can the arts continue to serve the public in the impending recession? 

Change may not be inevitable

Nothing feeds confirmation bias like a crisis. Many artists, alongside environmentalists and anticapitalists have sighed a collective ‘I told you so’ in response to the pandemic, as though the evolutionary biology of a virus had concern for social justice. 

We do, indeed, need art to make sense of the state of meditative non-capitalism, but we should be cautious in concluding that anything ‘changes everything’; the post-crisis opportunities could turn out not to be the silver lining we are looking for. Capitalism has had ample practice in turning to its advantage times of tightened public finances that are likely to follow the world’s spending and borrowing sprees and the inevitable recessions. Unlike in 2008, the arts will benefit from bailouts as much as other industries, and will have no choice but to prioritise their own economic survival.

In this light, it is artists who need the arts more than ever.

The arts should absorb the lessons of the last economic crisis and closely analyse their own response to the changes in power relations of society the crash produced. Many calls will be made for art to lend a hand in recovering the post-pandemic depression. 

You wasted a good crisis, a video work by artist collective DIS reminds us. Replicating the 2009 recovery model will only propel the industry in a spiral of internal competition, from which one can expect the conservative voices to emerge strongest.

DIS, ‘You wasted a good crisis’, 2018. Video still.

Could we do better than this? If one believes in the truly transformative potential of social or political art, then we must employ art to help rewrite the rules of the game. Instead of throwing its energy into fundraising, live-streaming fixes, or protectionist solidarity, could art communities engage in proposals for future art that could be transformative, ethical, ecological, fun, shocking, interesting and – insert adjective of your choice – profitable this time?


Cover image by Dennis Goodwin.

#byeweiwei

Ai WeiWei may be ‘the perfect Asian artist for lazy western curators’. He may also be the lazy marketer’s idea of viral cool, and the lazy politician’s idea of a progressive thinker. But for even the disaffected critic, WeiWei’s Law of the Journey at the National Gallery in Prague reveals failures of governance in the country’s critical apparatus.

On previous visits to Prague, I discovered the city’s contemporary art scene to be lively, engaged and alert, if not a little limited in breadth and diversity. Amongst the numerous art spaces and independent studios, the strong position of critics as public intellectuals is a positive legacy of Eastern block state cultures. I was therefore surprised to discover that a widely-publicised work commissioned by the National Gallery from Ai WeiWei has met with barely any critical response, despite its monumental scale and hallmarks of institutional corruption. The story’s end was framed for me by #byeweiwei, an event by curator Piotr Sikora for INI Project’s comparatively miniature space, who convened critics, art historians, and artists to interrogate the work, its universal unpopularity, and the silence. 

Law of the Journey consisted of a 40-metre long black rubber inflatable boat, carrying an army of faceless black rubber figures, all hanging across the oversized exhibition hall of Veletrzni Palace. The work was further accompanied by an installation of clothes recovered from a refugee camp and a semi-documentary film produced there. WeiWei’s aim in enlargement and exaggeration trick might have been a close and personal encounter with its subject; unfortunately while the boat under which paying onlookers perambulate stretches long enough to inspire awe, it also abstracts from view the very human figures above. For its monumental size, the rubber dinghy at best trivialises its subject, and indicts the reality it portrays as predictable and therefore avoidable

Ai WeiWei, Law of the Journey

It could be this very syntactic distance is what WeiWei wanted to expose, deliberately fetishising the perils of intercontinental migration and playlisting them as mere ‘content’ in the way that mainstream news outlets do routinely, therefore uncomfortably forcing art audiences to acknowledge their own disenfranchised voyeurism. The work suggests otherwise: the ‘contextual’ part of the installation presents the migrants’ garments all cleaned and pressed, making it all too easy to remain on the surface of materiality.

The relevance of the project to its Czech audience is questionable too; had Law of the Journey acted out on compassion or guilt, it could have appeared pertinent in the landlocked Eastern-European country that has the unsurprising track record of indifference if not mild hostility towards the migration problems on Europe’s Southern borders. Indeed, it is reported that the education and engagement programme constructed around the work by the National Gallery was resoundingly successful, but given the rumoured budget of $1 million, even the best schools programme pales into insignificance.

This appraisal appeared close to the views of Prague’s critical community, though those were voiced mostly through predictable jokes, dismay, and gossip. Such inarticulations conceal troubling limits of agency for the critical voice within with the neoliberal political structures of cultural markets. In contrast with more ‘developed’ environments characterized by complicity, and evident relationships between actors (as for example in the alleged exchange of corporate goodwill and public funding between Frieze and Arts Council England, as in Morgan Quaintance’s recent recent article in e-flux conversations), Law of the Journey lacks an immediately-visible beneficiary: the presentation in a Prague institution hardly increased the market value of WeiWei’s work, the National Gallery will have been left with little but a spike in Instagram activity and a budget hole, and the Czech public received only a temporary absolution of their moral shortcomings as world citizens. Who benefits?

It could be that in commissioning the work, the National Gallery, a behemoth of an institution which boasts fourteen venues, was driven by a need for popular success in fear of competition from the many independent institutions and project spaces in Prague, and those translate into institutional currency of blockbusters, media attention, and the respect of other institutionally-liquid bodies. 

Criticisms of the Gallery’s contemporary art programmes have abounded, and it is rumoured that the Gallery’s chief curator was not keen on the project but his opposition was overridden by the National Gallery’s director. Both are credited as curators of the project. Conspiracy theorists would suggest influence on the National Gallery’s programme by the pro-Chinese Czech government, and argue that WeiWei’s position as political dissident has become part of Beijing’s soft-power toolkit. 

Either way, the issue is one of governance, in which artistic quality and political and commercial factors are not weighed appropriately. Peculiar to the cultural milieu of Eastern Europe is the use of the term NGO to describe a range of institutions, including even the smallest and most precarious of project spaces. Since the fall of the iron curtain, many countries have introduced legal templates for privately-held public-good institutions, and after decades of plan economies and state culture, curators and artists have been keen to assert their independence. The NGO structures differ significantly from the idea of a charitable organisation present in English-law systems, where independent boards govern, but do not profit from, the operation of the charity. The Eastern-European NGO can take many forms, but a common pattern brings together museums, art centres and projects spaces: they are managed by single individuals or small committees, and where boards exist, they are at best consultative and have no control over management. State or local government-owned museums are indeed government-owned (in contrast to, for example, the National Gallery in London, which is an independent trust, even if the majority of its funding comes directly from the national government), and directors often report directly to their political funders. 

The space between Ai WeiWei and legal frameworks may seem vast, but I believe it is the source of Prague’s silence. While the National Gallery’s project may be criticized as expensive and artistically dubious, the art scene’s vocabulary of institutional critique has not developed beyond Palace intrigue, and this makes any systematic democratic scrutiny of such work impossible. To make matters worse, the limited legal controls on charitable activities have not seen the unbridled corporate interest in supporting the arts the legislators might have expected, and states remain the major funders of arts institutions, be it in a diminishing way. The visual arts community of Prague remains directly and indirectly funded by the Czech state, through conduits of a myriad of NGOs that receive funding from the same department as the National Gallery, and this pleases it in an unmanageable conflict of interest.

Characterised in this way, the critical dilemma is equivalent to a familiar moral one, and is solved only through a series of political decisions that may not seem to be of immediate interest to cultural activists. I believe, however, that this discussion about how basic decisions are made across the independent art sector is fundamental to answering questions on who such practice is for and why.

The Prophecy of Things

Anetta Mona Chişa and Lucia Tkáčová, Banska St a nica

“When Alexander of Macedonia was 33, he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer… Eric Bristow’s only 27.” This infamous line, delivered live on air by BBC sports commentator Sid Waddell in reaction to Bristow’s win of a darts tournament, is synonymous with a particular brand of self-mocking hubris. A similar darts game might be taking place in central Slovakia: it took 47000 volunteers two years to build the 21km long Railway of Youth line to Banská Štiavnica… Anetta Mona Chişa and Lucia Tkáčová have in one gesture created a departure place for all journeys.

Anetta Mona Chişa and Lucia Tkáčová, The Prophecy of Things, Banska St a nica, 2017

As the 2017 commission by Banska St a nica for the now sleepy train terminus, a 1950s symbol of past industry, prosperity and hope, Chişa and Tkáčová have covered the station waiting hall with a monumental textile installation. A rainbow of coloured streams emanates from an abstractly-patterned door that resembles a damaged mobile phone screen. This composition brings to mind 20th century propaganda landscapes in which the sun, synonymous with the political leadership, brings all kind of enlightenment and wealth to everyone who cares to bathe in its rays. The rainbow arrangement in Chişa and Tkáčová’s Prophecy of Things sits comfortably with the optimism remnant in the in the Modernist architecture of the train station, signalling a future that’s nominally bright and uninterruptible, even though its source is ultimately corrupt and doesn’t offer much useful information.

Chişa and Tkáčová are no strangers to hyperbolae. In their practice, potent symbols and humble objects have swapped places or abandoned their functions, utopias and realities coexist as thought without syntactic conflict. Here also, the monumental form of the work overrides questions of any specific conflict, difficulty or discomfort, insisting that its aesthetic value alone is more than enough to go on with. I have followed Chişa and Tkáčová’s work in formal institutional contexts for some years, but this is the first time I saw them in action close to home, in situ. It doesn’t matter that that darts are a minority interest, nor that they make very poor television.


This text was originally published in Flash Art CZ/SK, September 2017.

An Afternoon by the Sea

I didn’t find much time to holiday last year. Somehow, I forgot to plan any time off. In a diary like mine, a week away in August sticks out like a sore thumb. This is not particularly unusual, mind, not of me, not of London, not of the ‘current economic climate’. In fact, it had been quite some time since I had bothered with holidays at all — I always found the beach a bit too sandy, tourist attractions too touristy, and the countryside just too far away. Why rest, we’re having fun anyway, right?

I was therefore rather surprised to find myself in Oostende on the Belgian coast, sunglasses firmly on my nose, writing postcards, scoffing seafood platters and glasses of Sauvignon Blanc, taking leisurely boat cruises, and not minding the thousands of others partaking in the same simple pleasures only feet away. Days, nights, mornings and evenings, it felt like a childhood treat, a school summer holiday which never needed to end.

I recall this because I had a similar feeling the first time I encountered the work of Heide Hinrichs in Manifesta 8. Her installation, sited in a former tobacco factory in Rovereto in Italy, consisted of a series of models of greater structures — a planetary system of footballs hanging on ribbons and rope, and a whole language in an alphabet of objects rendered in papier-mâché. Inside Hinrichs’ installation The Unexpected Obedience of Your Thoughts, I was part of an environment in state of perfect equilibrium, where every element was in balance with my own presence.

Heide Hinrichs, presence of perception, 2013

You may think me sentimental, so please let me explain. There were, in truth, no evenings in Oostende, and no sand. My ‘holiday’ consisted of nine hours in total, including two train journeys. The boat rides were indeed plural, but only when I aborted a hearty walk fearing that I would miss the last Eurostar of the day. The seafood platter was not all that much either — I walked for a good hour, avoiding all the ‘tourist’ restaurants, only to find that there were no other restaurants at all. On the way back, I squashed into a broken-down train with hundreds of seaside day-trippers to return to London by 9pm.

It then seems even more sentimental to get hung up on an idea of a holiday, and one expressed with such economy. But what brings that day to mind again — when I look at the work of Heide Hinrichs — is its encapsulation of an array of states and memories, ones I have not often, if ever taken the opportunity to act out.

With modest simplicity, Hinrichs creates arrangements in which objects act not only as simulations of other ideas, but have the potential to become them: one is another. More, the work dispenses with objecthood altogether, freeing itself from the need for properties and relations to the external world that would define it in other circumstances. What remains of the objects are marks of the artist’s fingers in papier-mâché, pencil traces, threads sewn into fabrics, and holes cut into surfaces — executed from without.

In Rovereto and in exhibitions since, Hinrichs has created indoor landscapes using all-too familiar materials — cardboard, string, recycled rubber, fabrics. Her low-toned and restricted palette encourages an informal, open and natural reaction; the artist eases her work into the surroundings as though by chance. In Rovereto, with time, I began to notice the ambiguities contained in her arrangements, and it was no longer clear whether, for example, The forgotten heart, a work consisting of cardboard boxes and papier-mâché, was a ‘work’ or merely cardboard.

Sometimes Hinrichs deliberately toys with the idea of the ready-made, placing footballs, pearls and eggs amongst her hand-shaped pieces. In seeing these together, I wondered if a football only then and there became a metaphor for a planet and a universe, or if I had always know about their — now seemingly obvious — equivalence.

With her stripped-back mise en scene, Hinrichs’ installations appear as familiar stories, reshaped and stretched into new forms — only the originals are impossible to place. It was like this in Oostende, too: my nostalgic synthesis of the day was not the result of the weather or the seascape, nor even of a particular experience in my own memory. Oostende could have contained anything, and anything but Oostende. The day became a perfect simulation of a set of conditions I could only have known from secondary sources.

It is easy to get carried away here; a scene can appear so vividly drawn that one can overstep the barriers between outsider and constituent. Hinrichs is aware of this — with typically understated humour, the artist places small statuettes, actors-observers, in the periphery of her installations. The works themselves engage in an active exchange, too: in Librarian’s Eye, for example, an isolated video animation surveys the space, encouraging other works to perform their roles. It’s a peculiar moment, to recognise so clearly one’s own feeling as belonging to an altogether different story, and in which either version of events could well be true. In my own seaside afternoon, I thought I was playing out some French film classic, perhaps the Louvre scene from À bout de soufflé.

To run so carefree under the noses of museum guards is a matter of some confidence. Without drawing attention to the self-control in Hinrichs’ works, the artist creates environments that are both protective and liberating. In the recent presence of perception, and a companion series of drawings which show house-like structures encased by the fingers of two hands, the artist holds a void, a space in which a story can unfold. But despite their immateriality, Hinrichs’ structures need only be held together with minimal force, as though they are determined to remain self-reliant, and confident that their fragility is only a matter of our perception.

Perhaps it is not then mere coincidence that I spent my afternoon by the sea in the company of Heide Hinrichs.

Not Taking Part is Not an Option

From belonging and membership to inclusion and participation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Javier Rodriguez, Último Mundo Universal

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

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

Javier Rodriguez, Último Mundo Universal distributed in Venezuela.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Redshift

Catalogue essay accompanying a duo exhibition by Marcin Dudek and Ben Washington

Look far enough, and things will begin to appear redder than you’d expect. Look really far though – past the horizon, past the sun, and past the galaxy, a few million light years away. Look through a telescope strong enough, look at the distant starts, and you’ll notice that they glow somewhat red.

What you’re seeing is redshift, a consequence of the same law of physics that causes the pitch of ambulance sirens to change as they pass by our ears at speed. Even if we cannot quite observe redshift with a naked eye, employing instead spectral telescopes, the effect is conclusive proof that the universe is expanding. For some 13.7 billion years, light and matter have been travelling away from us, away from one another. Given time, any two distant bodies will drift even further apart, pulled away into new expanses of space. It is space itself that keeps growing, perhaps counter-intuitively, inflating ‘onto’ itself: where there was nothing, there will be space, and matter will follow.

I will not attempt a scientifically-sound description of the physical world here. Marcin Dudek and Ben Washington do not refer to equations or draw in theory into their work either. They do, however, precisely what physical science has been doing all along: they create models which attempt to describe our world with an appropriate degree of accuracy, and to make predictions on what happens next and what is just our of sight.

Ben Washington, Robert Peston
Ben Washington, The Rub, 2011

In I Will Eat This Sleepy Town, Washington’s stars mix with the dirt beneath our feet. The aerial has a dual meaning here: Robert Peston, agent of the apocalypse, hangs in a blue sky watching over the domain, bridges are built from nowhere and to nowhere, and a set of extinguished television screens shines the brightest. The works bring together elements that should not reasonably coexist – the high and the low, the stable and the temporary, the natural and the man-made.

Ben Washington, Shock and Apathy, 2011

Such shifts in scale, matter and content are mirrored in Washington’s working method. The sculptures need to be assembled element by element, and at each stage a delicate balance is found before the subsequent layer can be drawn. This stands at odds with our usual experience of the world, in which all elements appear at once, set in their ways before we become aware of them. With his selective attention to detail, and the luxury of distance, Washington allows us to live out his game, and have all the elements of the model in our field of vision at the same time.

Where Washington takes the bird’s eye view, Marcin Dudek’s tunnel installations are an exploration of the ‘fundamental’ mechanisms of the universe. Confronting his quotidian surroundings, the artist decided to find the new and the unexplained below ground and behind walls. What lies behind the next layer of rock or in the next cavity is unknown, but the directions Dudek takes in his dig soon form a diagram, and elements underground and at the surface become connected in a complex network.

Marcin Dudek, Will Eat This Sleepy Town, 2011

In I Will Eat This Sleepy Town, Dudek has unearthed a tunnel that leads us across the gallery in a peculiar and convoluted path. This construction, made from little more than packaging tape, becomes an imposing and solid conduit for our movement and thought from the surface to the antipodean interior. Preparing us for the journey is a carbon-copy book of Earth itself: Strata (2010) turns the elements of subsurface into knowledge, making connections between the Chilean miners’ rescue of October 2010 and space rockets. At the turn of his tunnel, Dudek has placed a video trap – a false triumph, a source of artificial light. Propelled further, we make our way to the end, finding that the helical descent into the ground has led us right back to the surface.

Mardin Dudek, Strata, 2010

This self-referring network, although it may appear arbitrary, is no less logical than the bonds between Ben Washington’s individual sculptures. Dudek has practiced creating this lattice on paper and on canvas, in works like Diagram or Verofragments (both 2007). The tunnels are an extended version of the painting works – in which the canvas itself is three-, if not four-dimensional. The confusing dimensionality is perhaps caused by the fact that Dudek’s installation is peculiar Möbius strip – an object in which the inside and outside are on the same surface. Emerging from the underpass, we see its exterior, a dense, sticky wall that gives no sense of liberation and opens no space.

An earlier work helps us position ourselves in the clear. Pumping Station (2008) led Dudek to twenty-four railway terminals across Europe. The journey itself created a map of human transits, and in each location, the artist installed a temporary public sculpture made of rubber bicycle tubes, entangled and pumped up to different shapes and pressures. While the appearance of the conduit changed with time and location, the relationship between the external and internal surfaces of the object remained the same, much like in the parcel-tape, walk-in cylinder in I Will Eat This Sleepy Town.

Marcin Dudek, Pumping Station, 2008

What connects Washington and Dudek is their interest in defining spaces and creating a set of geometrical parameters that describe our own position. Both know that what they create are only models, and seek out the limits at which the predictions are no longer reliable. This state of uncertainty yet again mirrors the physicist’s view of the universe, in which Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle limits the precision with which we can measure the present state and trajectory of any object. 

This restriction notwithstanding, the artists are able to tell us about the boundaries and surfaces we encounter. Marcin Dudek’s video works like Fair Play (2008), in which a tennis ball is repeatedly bounced from surfaces soft and solid in the big top of Frieze Art Fair in Regent’s Park. The artist sends a probe to the limits of (temporary and fictional) space and awaits its return. Another video work, Axis (2010) is a virtual measurement of the lengths, widths and heights of a building, all performed with tape that has no scale. The data collected is unquantifiable, and we interpret it intuitively; the tunnel installation in I Will Eat This Sleepy Town brings us even closer to the illusory object Dudek is trying to describe, forcing us to touch and be led along its very shell.

Ben Washington’s sculptures like Advanced Military Layers, which reproduces in miniature a fragment of the Moon’s surface using NASA’s altimetry data, allow us to orbit around the planetary shell. Presented on a Formica-covered office table, an everyday surface of our own, this sculpture places the diametrically different order within our comprehension, rendering both illusory and unreliable. In The Division of a County(2009), a Mars mountainscape, moulded from paper, hangs only feet above our ground, balancing on a less-than stable ladder. Physical elements of this work have found their way into I Will Eat This Sleepy Town, and act as a distant reference point for the remaining works.

Washington’s early collage works demonstrate the artist’s desire to assume different points of view. The constructions appear to contain designs for space ships and launch pads, pylons and ladders, in a way reminiscent of the uncanny accuracy with which Leonardo’s cartoons contained blueprints for helicopters and bicycles. The artist demonstrated his commitment to exploring distance in Apollo 11, when he had a galactic map showing the way to Earth tattooed on his back. In his sculpture, Washington uses his elevated position to look from without, but enlarges and brings closer parts of the landscape, so that the distant and the immediate are ours to touch. Ben Washington, Special Purchase, 2011

I Will Eat This Sleepy Town brings together the perspectives of looking from the inside and outside, and it may not be clear whether Washington’s and Dudek’s works are prototypes or replicas – the origins or the products of matter. The artists’ two perspectives, however, allow us to choose our own observation points, and to witness the redshift – proof that the universe we live in is expanding – for ourselves without having to arm our senses with apparatus, but through thought alone.