Epistemic politics, knowledge warfare 

In 1965, the scientist and novelist C.P. Snow gave his infamous Rede lecture The Two Cultures in which he lamented the state of the perennial debate on the relative merits of scientific and humanistic thought. In an oft-quoted passage, Snow described asking his literary colleagues about the Second Law of Thermodynamics. “The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?”[1]C P Snow and S Collini, The Two Cultures, ACLS Humanities E-Book, e-pub (Cambridge University Press (Canto Classics), 1993), chap. 1. This comical situation might seem familiar today. How many literary critics keep up with current research in mathematics? Do material scientists follow the developments in critical theory? Equally pointedly: how do gender scholars understand the basics of human biology? Do pharmaceutical researchers have the tools to consider the socio-ethical effects of their lab research?

 CP Snow in 1970. Photograph: Jane Bown.

If these latter examples court controversy, it is because I want to argue that the conflict between the disciplines is as much one of competition for who can offer the most compelling description of reality or most effectively control resources, as it is one of fundamental attitudes to what knowledge is. How, for example, is it possible for an evolutionary biologist to maintain that there are only two human sexes[2]Xi, Meimei. ‘Biology Lecturer’s Comments on Biological Sex Draw Backlash’. The Harvard Crimson, 12 August 2021. https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2021/8/11/biology-lecturer-gender-comments-backlash/. but for a historian to propose that the variety of gender expressions invalidates the sex binary?[3]The Washington Times, ‘University of Toronto Historian: Biological Sex a “Very Popular Misconception”’, The Washington Times, 2016 <https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2016/dec/2/university-historian-biological-sex-misconception/> … see more Without evaluating the merits of their positions, I’ll observe that the two scholars are not simply making competing interpretations of the available evidence. They are, in fact, in profound disagreement over what and how it is possible for them to know. Once they have staked their positions, it is in the interest of each to insist that those epistemic beliefs are beyond the reach of politics. After all, biology looks at nature objectively by definition, right? And gender theory, surely, always produces only impeccable politics. Best, then, not to query either.

Such differences originate at the disciplines’ epistemic foundations, that is in their divergent answers to the question of what and how we can ever know about the world. We may be used to observing these disagreements as they manifest in everyday culture as in my example, but I propose that they are more appropriately understood as a matter of epistemic politics that pertains to the nature and practice of research itself. A discipline’s epistemic politics (a term I borrow from the cultural theorist Tom Holert)[4]Tom Holert, Knowledge Beside Itself: Contemporary Art’s Epistemic Politics (Sternberg Press, 2020). is the propensity of a knowledge system to engage with others on adversarial terms. And so, science’s epistemic politics suggests that there is something politically particular to how scientists know science that makes them resilient to accepting the validity of humanist thought. In the humanities, vice-versa.

Epistemic politics emanates from the very first principles of knowledge-making and its primary applications. These politics do not easily translate to the everyday politics of progressivism and conservatism. In the liberal everyday, for example, we may be perfectly capable of holding conflicting knowledges, simultaneously embracing the certainty of science when it comes to climate change and rejecting it in favour of the social construction of gender. At the level of epistemic politics, this is nothing short of cognitive dissonance.

War of the disciplines

Epistemic politics has long been mixed up with political conflict. More than five decades ago, Snow identified that the knowledge gap between the humanities and the sciences was nearly irreconcilable. Not only would the 20th century Renaissance man struggle to cover the vast ground of multiple disciplines, but he lacked the conviction to do so. By the 1960s, it had become a point of pride for literary intellectuals who were for Snow synonymous with the incumbent ruling classes to maintain a pointed ignorance of the sciences. The day’s scientists and technologists reciprocated by ignoring the basic assumptions of the humanities as they challenged the traditional forms of power. The critic Stefan Collini highlighted the intensely political nature of The Two Cultures controversy.[5]C P Snow and S Collini, The Two Cultures, ACLS Humanities E-Book (Cambridge University Press (Canto Classics), 1993). This was a time of two opposing revolutions: one technological and one social. From his bench, Snow argued that for the literary scholar to remain ignorant of the scientific could only impede human progress because the uninformed humanities would waste everybody’s time attempting to invalidate scientific thought.

The faces of the technological revolution. Photo Yngvar/Wikimedia Commons.

Harsh but fair? No wonder Snow failed to win the sympathy of his audiences and his lecture is perhaps the first exhibit in the museum of the culture wars. But the power-play he identified persists. Today, we worry about holding runaway technological innovation in check using the tools of the humanities that often prove inadequate to the task[6]Gerard Delanty and Neal Harris, ‘Critical Theory and the Question of Technology: The Frankfurt School Revisited’, Thesis Eleven, 2021, 07255136211002055 <https://doi.org/10.1177/07255136211002055>. just as Snow had predicted. In the decades since his call, disciplines have staked their positions across an ideological divide[7]T Becher and P Trowler, Academic Tribes And Territories: Intellectual Enquiry and the Culture of Disciplines, SRHE and Open University Press Imprint (Open University Press, 2001). in what we may observe as the politicization of the academy. 

This is a grotesquely simplified view of disciplinary discourses, but it highlights a key problem of the academy’s epistemic rifts: that each faculty’s fundamental outlooks are inescapably political. As the disciplines develop a growing range of epistemic idiosyncrasies, we ignore them at our peril.

Academic drifts

It is easy to forget that the modern academy, with its disciplinary categories and faculty divisions, is effectively an 18th-century invention. Before the advent of the Humboldtian model of the university what knowledge meant was in part a matter of local fashion. In a world in which disciplinary boundaries were porous,[8]G. E. R. Lloyd, Disciplines in the Making: Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Elites, Learning, and Innovation (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). ‘real world’ politics and the politics of research were nearly synonymous. But as much as this integrated knowledge world looks like an idyll from the perspective of today’s politically polarized academy, it was but a fiction. 

However much we might pine after a knowledge culture in which different fields complement each other and compete to find the best answers in areas of common interest, as the sciences, humanities, and the arts went their ways, each carried away the conviction that its fundamental dogmas were reality’s best bet. Are such narratives the result of the ongoing marketization of the academy[9]Geoff Whitty, ‘Marketization and Post-Marketization in Education’, in Second International Handbook of Educational Change, ed. by Andy Hargreaves and others, Springer International Handbooks of Education (Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands, … see more that sees researchers compete for resources and attention? If so, then epistemic specialization could be understood as a productive strategy in the marketplace of ideas and it would only be natural that scientists pose and answer questions in ways unintelligible to humanists who, in turn, would have a range of subjects and idiosyncratic epistemic approaches of their own.

But market capitalism cannot be blamed for everything, and it is not merely the object of knowledge but the nature of thought itself that is in question. Epistemic politics, then, concerns not what we know, but how or even why: the human relationship to truth itself.

Interdisciplinary dystopias

In his lecture, Snow proposed investing in interdisciplinary collaborations that have become commonplace in the academy since.[10]Christina Raasch and others, ‘The Rise and Fall of Interdisciplinary Research: The Case of Open Source Innovation’, Research Policy, 42.5 (2013), 1138–51 <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.respol.2013.01.010>. Could disparate knowledge forces be brought together through greater dialogue between the disciplines? To further examine the disciplines’ attitudes to knowledge is to stumble upon irreconcilable conflicts: the success of one discipline often relies on undermining the findings of another on grounds of epistemic ideology rather than evidence. This is a tactic that the feminist critic Gayatri Spivak described as epistemic violence.[11]Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), pp. 271–313. In the earlier question of the sex/gender binary, this tactic encompasses biology’s ideological refusal to accommodate the diversity of gender and the retaliation of critical humanities in undermining the validity of biological sex. One might seek to separate the disciplines and observe that their descriptions concern distinct aspects of a reality. But by the time we introduce a complaint of violence into the analysis, such nuance is unlikely to remain in the foreground.

How would we bring together today’s scientists and engineers with humanists and critical scholars in pursuit of unified theories when their beliefs are fundamentally misaligned? For the first camp, the idea of objective truth production and a rigorous approach to evidence is synonymous with political neutrality that nonetheless relies on the wholesale rejection of knowledges produced by the humanities and the liberal arts. For the latter, knowledge production depends on an investment in situatedness and complexity, and the freedom to disregard what to scientists look like incontrovertible facts, on grounds of the ethical and political superiority of this method.

Interdisciplinarity is difficult: any attempt to ignore the totalizing desires of competing schools of thought under its banner is at best naïve. Apart from relying on resources and conditions rarely present in the academy, interdisciplinarity requires a near-utopian non-hierarchical coming together of epistemes. But even under such rare circumstances, interdisciplinarity is not a practice for resolving the questions of epistemic politics. At best, it can create knowledge that builds an epistemic politics of its own.

Outside the ivory tower

If epistemic politics is only a minor constituent of the politics of the ballot box, does it matter outside the academy or indeed outside the rarefied discourse of epistemology? Nowhere have the conflicts of epistemic politics been more visible than in the recent arguments over the role of science in the public policy responses to Covid-19. Many political leaders repeated the mantras of ‘following the science’ while taking momentous decisions. And they would have got away with it because ‘the science’ was happy to maintain the politicians’ fiction of apoliticality as long as that fiction supported science’s epistemic politics. It took a significant amount of debate and pressure before that ‘science’ conceded that its findings weren’t always conclusive and that it had little to say about the trade-offs of policy decisions. 

The University of Oxford

And this denial of sciences’ epistemic politics did not go unnoticed as attention turned towards vaccine hesitancy and mask-mandate dissent. On the surface, some of the arguments put forward by the opponents of the more restrictive public health measures have been almost scientific in pointing to the limited evidence of vaccine safety or mask efficacy. Without suggesting that these concerns indeed have scientific grounds, shouldn’t mainstream science encourage calls for independent evaluation and effortlessly incorporate them into the balance of narratives? Aren’t questions of medication safety easily answered by well-practised evidentiary practices? 

It should, and they are, but science’s epistemic politics led it to concentrate on discrediting the political motivations of anti-vax, anti-mask, and anti-mandate sentiments rather than responding to their knowledge claims on their own grounds. In its misguided bid to appear apolitical while so doing, ‘the science’ gave up its ability to engage with fundamental questions such as the relationship between scientific determinism and human autonomy. As a result, science’s attempts of fighting misinformation proved to be largely ineffective and science was left open to attacks from disciplines with conflicting ideological priorities.

This is important because a science unaware of its own epistemic politics cannot participate in politics proper. And yet, the self-preservation instinct of scientists is to deny the possibility of any bias in knowledge-making politics. Latour and Woolgar’s 1979 exposé of the socially constructed nature of scientific practice[12]Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts, 2013. did not convince scientists that their universalist and determinist paths to knowledge were more winding than they may have thought. If anything, the idea that science may be in some sense human-made has invited defences like Jonathan Rauch’s recent The Constitution of Knowledge[13]Jonathan Rauch, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2021). which argues that scientific reason should be protected from corrupting social ideologies.[14]Laura Ford addresses some of the political limitations of this approach in her review of Rauch’s book. Laura Ford, ‘The Limits of Liberal Science’, The Bulwark, 4 November 2021, https://www.thebulwark.com/the-limits-of-liberal-science/ Which knowledge and whose politics take primacy when such differences remain unresolved?

At the limits of knowledge

In his recent work, the philosopher Nathan Ballantyne has addressed the problems of intellectual trespass and humility that affect scholars of all disciplines and the difficulty they pose for lay members of the public navigating between logically exclusive epistemic regimes.[15]Nathan Ballantyne, ‘Epistemic Trespassing’, Mind, 128.510 (2019), 367–95 <https://doi.org/10.1093/mind/fzx042>; Nathan Ballantyne, ‘Recent Work on Intellectual Humility: A Philosopher’s Perspective’, The Journal of … see more The bad news is that even knowing when one has considered enough evidence to solve a particular problem requires a high degree of epistemic flexibility. If we accept that choosing where to place one’s trust is an inherently political decision for a layperson, why wouldn’t we assume an even greater level of political investment of a scholar? 

Of course, this problem is present in the humanities and the liberal arts just as readily as it appeared in the sciences. The gender and sex debates that I alluded to are another example of political action hiding behind a ‘pure knowledge’ discourse. In one of her YouTube appearances, the feminist critic Camille Paglia lamented the fact that gender studies refused to involve biologists in mapping the field at the outset.[16]Camille Paglia and Jordan Peterson, ‘Modern Times: Camille Paglia & Jordan B Peterson’, 2017 <https://youtu.be/v-hIVnmUdXM?t=1701> [accessed 18 September 2021]. This is another example of a discipline excluding whole classes of evidence on political grounds. It isn’t that gender studies lack the understanding of biological sex: their epistemic politics dictates that they must deny the epistemic validity of thinking about their central question in scientific terms.

This epistemic politics comes long before the radical politics of that we recognize in liberation discourses of the critical humanities. So much so that the profoundly partisan politics of gender studies can be understood as a mere byproduct of the discipline’s epistemic disposition. And as with science, the political claims of the humanities are often unfounded: when humanistic disciplines present themselves as political antidotes to forms of fascism, they do so in a propagandistic manner that does little to support knowledge production, let alone the integration of disparate epistemic systems.

Like in my example of the vaccination drive, the success of gender constructionism relies on the complete invalidation of biology’s epistemic methods because the social theory of gender is unwilling to question its own epistemic politics in a manner legible to its perceived adversaries. As science inadvertently contributed to the anti-science sentiments of anti-vaxxers, so does the political certainty of gender theory give rise to the very opposition it seeks to fight.

Sometimes this has unexpected and far-reaching consequences. Even the law, a practice intimately concerned with the nature of truth and invested in translating epistemic politics into politics proper has fallen foul of the clash of the disciplines. The American Civil Liberties Union’s recontextualization of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s position on the nature of the bodily autonomy of women is just one example of the epistemic drift from the positivist to the constructed notion of what makes a woman.[17]Michael Powell, ‘A.C.L.U. Apologizes for Tweet That Altered Quote by Justice Ginsburg’, The New York Times, 28 September 2021, section U.S. <https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/27/us/aclu-apologizes-ginsburg-quote.html> [accessed 1 … see more By the time it came to Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s SCOTUS confirmation, the question was moot.[18]Jonathan Weisman, ‘A Demand to Define “Woman” Injects Gender Politics into Jackson’s Confirmation Hearings.’, The New York Times, 23 March 2022, sec. U.S., … see more

Whichever side one takes in the real-world politics of this issue, the fact that these legal arguments rely on unresolved epistemic conflicts can only be a weakness. To some, epistemic polarization may appear as an opportunity for subversion, but it leads to a dead end. And as science’s vaccination campaigns run aground because they couldn’t contend with politics, I believe that the epistemic politics of the politics of gender will falter because it is not open to anything other than a predetermined set of radical progressive politics.

Staking our claims again

It was ever thus. That politics rules the epistemic is evident from the historical record of knowledge breakthroughs. Did the Catholic Church, for example, refuse to acknowledge Galileo’s work because it wasn’t convinced by his arguments or because its power relied on not sharing an epistemic primacy with mere mortals? But such gains as those of the Church are short-lived and if we allow this epistemic struggle to continue, we may be trading claims of political neutrality and supremacy ad infinitum. Or, perhaps, we could try and find ways of breaking out of it. 

To do so, we must stop treating our epistemic toolkits as politically determined and refrain from delegating the politics of knowledges to the fields of their application where their discourse is inevitably adversarial. Would it not be easier to acknowledge our politics and then treat its forays into other fields as acts of epistemic and political trespass over which we must maintain full ethical control? I am not suggesting ridding the academy of politics. On the contrary, I call for making its epistemic politics active and transparent at a much more fundamental level.

Many formidable attempts to employ this method have already been made. Kathryn Paige Harden’s recent book The Genetic Lottery,[19]Kathryn Paige Harden, The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality, 2021. for example, builds a humanist argument from scientific data. Beyond its urgent topicality, the greatest value of this work is that it is explicit about the political dimension of its epistemic approach and therefore it can test its thesis outside its customary controlled (and limited) environment.

In Humanist Reason, a rousing manifesto for the reconfiguration of the humanist method, Eric Hayot questions his discipline’s oppositional epistemic politics. Do humanities scholars today truly believe that gravity or biology are merely social constructs?[20]E Hayot, Humanist Reason: A History. an Argument. a Plan (Columbia University Press, 2021). Perhaps not. Hayot challenges the stasis of pretending to earnestly hold such irrational beliefs just because it is easier than re-reading Isaac Newton. The stalemate is systemic: a critical studies scholar would be out of a job if they were to concede the validity of scientific evidence that contravenes their own episteme’s assumptions. Likewise, any scientist despairing at the difficulties of applying the neatly deterministic solutions of science in the social realm may benefit from simply ignoring the unruly complexities of the real world.

Eric Hayot’s Humanist Reason

The key concern is not merely that the humanities and the sciences do not readily engage with dissenting forms of knowledge production, but that they fail to see their own worldviews as negotiable. This is because most knowledge understands itself as is produced through the application of only a singular set of epistemic tools. Science must owe nothing to poetry, the humanities would rather mathematics didn’t exist. Hayot’s response is to confront the humanities with an epistemic challenge that stems from within, reframing their epistemic politics in a manner that acknowledges the arbitrary nature of their dogma. To maintain its command over knowledge, any practice must continuously question its most basic assumptions. 

I may be displaying my own naïve bias here: I took my first degree in Physics and am currently writing a doctoral thesis in the liberal arts, but my training in neither began with an in-depth discussion of their epistemic positions. I could flatter myself that like C.P. Snow I am well-equipped to evaluate ideas using the tools of their political opponents, but this could be an illusion (Snow was far less successful as a scientist than as a man of letters). To know as a scientist and a humanist at once is difficult. To do politics, much easier.

Notes[+]

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 Omicron, fewer still that felt it badly, and only one who had lost a family member. No one I know has admitted to actually suffering from the isolation of lockdowns or job losses or has even complained of being disoriented by the overstimulation of case numbers or scientific predictions.

The Covid trauma of the metropolitan middle-classes comes from something far more difficult to treat: the profound realisation that, despite its early promise, the pandemic has only accelerated the disenfranchisement in the polis. As the professional pessimist Slavoj Žižek observed, if the greatest act of love for many us is to stay away, this is enough to bring about new depths of suspicion, fatigue, and confusion in the already alienated liberal elites.[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, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17439760.2021.1940252.

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, https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/is-natural-immunity-better-than-vaccination. Comparing the two requires a significant amount of scientific proficiency in the art of reading scientific papers, plenty of background knowledge, and a fair amount of goodwill towards the assumptions the studies’ authors make on behalf of their research. Science communicators Schulman and Foht expend a couple of thousand words on explaining why the studies do not compare like for like even if that may be what their headlines indicated. We don’t know for sure whether it’s better to catch Covid or to avoid it through vaccination because the studies were not designed to answer such questions definitively.

What about those recurring questions that scientific advice in many European countries appears to be very confident in: do lockdowns save lives? To pick the best solution for the next phase should then be easy and the scientific recommendations of lockdowns have been forthright. What the scientific answers to such an important question lack is falsifiability: because we cannot at the same time run an experiment in which Italy was tightly locked down and another in which the virus is allowed to rip, we cannot know the precise impact of the intervention with absolute certainty. We know that France and Italy locked down early and tightly, we blamed the British Government for waiting too late, and we envied the Swedes for coming out relatively unscathed without imposing any onerous measures, but because a great number of factors such as levels of social trust and the population’s compliance are difficult to account for, any comparisons are likely to be heavily caveated in ways that may or may not sway their validity in repetition.

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 Control and Protection; MMWR. Morbidity and … see more 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, … see more

Again, these examples do not invalidate the nature of scientific discovery, nor do they throw the validity of epidemiology as a science into doubt. Plenty of the questions I posed here have unambiguous answers: we know how the virus transmits, we know what lockdowns do, we can make predictions about mortality rates and treatment options. These aren’t mere speculations. However, the degrees of scepticism I have proposed here range from the purely scientific to the political and I present them here to underline the difficulty of conducting and acting on science under strain and pressure. There is a sour paradox to a method that relies on experimental verification for the very constitution of its ideas and theories that it is required to make binding predictions that affect lives in their very first application. In principle, even this will be overcome by the scientific method, given sufficient ability to develop iterative protocols and a reduction in the degrees of complexity. Meteorology is one example of this process working well: the intricate weather patterns of the world are described daily by a large but finite set of observations, models are developed, predictions are made and their predictions are eventually compared with the weather states observed the following day. The work of thousands of scientists, the expense of considerable computing power, and the collaboration of many nations have meant that we are now pretty good at telling the weather. Still, people continue to die in hurricanes and floods, whether these are predicted or not.

Politics does not care for evidence

Preparing for the devastation of a flood is not unlike coordinating the resources of a country in response to a pandemic, in as much as they both rely on translating scientific predictions into action through a process of politics. One of the early paradigms of the pandemic was the stark choice between saving lives and protecting the economy. This choice was presented as binary, as though the economy could benefit from an increase in the population’s death rates. While many critics rightly protested that such a dichotomy was false, the draconian nature of the early interventions such as lockdowns and travel restrictions effectively enforced that impossibility of imagining any half-measures. Governments worldwide have thus gone for all-or-nothing approaches: Stay home, Save Lives, Protect the NHS.

The theorist Keller Easterling has proposed that the unnecessary binary is a feature of a system that protects its hegemony.[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, https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/blog/covid-data-modelling. This proposal, as much as it is a step towards the paradigm of evidence-based policy, is strikingly unrealistic. Would it not be simpler to accept that the political decisions based on scientific advice are inherently political, that is that they involve judgment, the very faculty we elect politicians for?

Our collective refusal to understand the elusive nature of ‘the science’ allows us to blame politics and politicians for any adverse effects of their decisions, whether these decisions are rooted in scientific advice or now. When thousands of people died in the early months of the UK pandemic, it must have been because politicians ignored sound scientific advice. Conversely, when many more hospitality workers lost their jobs as the result of health protection measures, it was again the politicians’ fault, not science’s. With this pattern, we have erected the perfect buffer that prevents us from confronting the arbitrary nature of the pandemic and the subjective nature of political judgment. Might this be because we already know that the judgments all involve difficult trade-offs and we wouldn’t want to be the ones making them? Faced with an endless stream of advice, reliable or not, a lobby full of competing interests, a desire for self-preservation, and an ethical instinct, would any of us be able to make decisions that strictly ‘follow the science?’

Your decisions are less rational than you think

How do individuals navigate the scaling complexities and ambiguities of science and its political representations? When we access scientific information, how do we evaluate its veracity? What is the likelihood that any scientific information we acquire corresponds to the truth?

The last substantial review of public attitudes to science in the UK dates to 2019.[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, … see more

The problem we face now is one of programmatic disinformation and mistrust. The volume of conflicting information and the cognitive load required of any individual trying to make sense of it is such that they are unable to proceed without resorting to belief, simplification, or confirmation bias, often unconsciously. No wonder that many have interpreted any resistance to vaccination as a sure sign of antiscientific irrationality associated with the worst conspiracy theories, while those sceptical of the cycle of lockdowns have come to regard the safety-first faction as a cult. The net result is that whoever can make claims of controlling or following ‘the science’ is likely to command public consent.


None of the accusations I have levelled at science, politics, and society helps us in making the daily decisions that determine our health as well as the overall shape of the public sphere that we inhabit. My concern at the shape that politics takes if we simply comply and do not meaningfully engage with the interface of science and ideology is that it is likely to reaffirm a hegemony that we can ill-afford; as Easterling observed, the presence of conflicting information builds up a Teflon coating on which the very rationality we hope to achieve slips and slides.[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[+]

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[+]

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.

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.

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.