Value in Numbers

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

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

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

The end of civilisation as we know it

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

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

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

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

Too big to fail

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

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

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

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

Post-truth art

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

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

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

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

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

Art simulating itself

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

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

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

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

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

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

Token aesthetics

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

EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS (Beeple, 2021)

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

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

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

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

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


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

Notes[+]

Hannah Wohl: Bound by Creativity

Bound by Creativity

Bound by Creativity
How Contemporary Art is Created and Judged

Hannah Wohl

Published by University of Chicago Press, 2021
ISBN 9780226784694

Bound by Creativity

What is creativity? While our traditional view of creative work might lead us to think of artists as solitary visionaries, the creative process is profoundly influenced by social interactions even when artists work alone.

Hannah Wohl speaks with Pierre d’Alancaisez about Bound by Creativity, her ethnographic study of the New York contemporary art scene that reveals how artists develop conceptions of their distinctive creative visions through experimentation and social interactions and how aesthetic judgment evolves between artist studios, galleries, art fairs, and collectors’ houses.

We mention Paula Cooper Gallery and the work of artists Lucky DeBellevue and Gina Beavers. The Armory Show takes place in NY in early September 2021.

Hannah Wohl is an assistant professor in sociology at University of California, Santa Barbara.

Review: The Class Ceiling

The Class Ceiling 
Why it Pays to be Privileged

Sam Friedman
Daniel Laurison

Published by Policy Press, 2020
ISBN 9781447336068

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Notes[+]

Danielle Child: Working Aesthetics

book cover

Working Aesthetics is the story of art and work under contemporary capitalism. Whilst labour used to be regarded as an unattractive subject for art, the proximity of work to everyday life has subsequently narrowed the gap between work and art. The artist is no longer considered apart from the economic but is heralded as an example of how to work in neoliberal management textbooks.

With the narrowing of work and art visible in galleries and art discourse today, Working Aesthetics takes a step back to ask why labour has become a valid subject for contemporary art and explores what this means for aesthetic culture today.

Danielle Child speaks with Pierre d’Alancaisez about the rise of the art fabricator embodied by the stories of Lippincott, Inc. and Mike Smith Studio, dematerialised labour of Rimini Protokoll, and the digital afterlives of etoy and the brave new world of NFTs.

The opening street scene by Eyre Crowe is here.

Shannan Clark: The Making of the American Creative Class

During the middle decades of the twentieth century, the production of America’s consumer culture was centralized in New York to an extent unparalleled in the history of the United States. Every day tens of thousands of writers, editors, artists, performers, technicians, and secretaries made advertisements, produced media content, and designed the shape and feel of the consumer economy. While this centre of creativity has often been portrayed as a smoothly running machine, within these offices many white-collar workers challenged the managers and executives who directed their labours.

Shannan Clark speaks with Pierre d’Alancaisez about the origins of the creative class, their labour union struggles and successes, the role of the Works Projects Administration, and institutions like the Design Laboratory and Consumer Union which foretell the experiences of today’s culture workers.

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[+]

Leigh Claire La Berge: Wages Against Artwork

Wages Against Artwork
Decommodified Labor and the Claims of Socially Engaged Art

Leigh Claire La Berge

Published by Duke University Press, 2019
ISBN 9781478004233

The last twenty years have seen a rise in the production, circulation, and criticism of new forms of socially engaged art aimed at achieving social justice and economic equality. 

Leigh Claire La Berge, author of Wages Against Artwork, speaks with Pierre d’Alancaisez about what she calls decommodified labour — the slow diminishment of wages alongside an increase in the demands of work. Outlining the ways in which artists relate to work, La Berge examines how artists and organizers create institutions to address their own precarity and why the increasing presence of animals and children in contemporary art points to the turn away from paid labour.

Leigh Claire La Berge is Assistant Professor of English at Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York. She’s the author of Scandals and Abstraction (about which she spoke on an earlier episode), and co-editor of Reading Capitalist Realism. She’s currently working on expanding her project Marx for Cats, initiated with Caroline Woolard and Or Zubalsky.

Defund the museum. Ok, then What?

Change is in the air. It’s not clear if we are ready for it, and it may be a done deal already. Either way, the arts may be looking at an opportunity of a lifetime.

In a recent text for Hyperallergic and the Ford Foundation, the artist and writer Coco Fusco rejects the demand for artists to offer “uplifting” thoughts of a better future. Prompted to consider “our shared myths of justice and equity,” Fusco points to the histories and art movements, some of them still in living memory, that paid a heavy price for obliging the institutional desire for critique and self-flagellation. Artists who respond to their day’s urgent calls – in Fusco’s example the 1993 Whitney Biennial cohort – are judged to be “too simplistic, too strident, unmarketable, not representative, and anti-art.” Fusco concludes that it’s not new or more critical art that we need, but new institutions. The burden of creating a new future cannot fall on those (artists) who are already struggling with the museum’s duplicitous tyranny. 

With the art world in turmoil, time might be right for changes from the very top. Fusco agrees: “the arts professionals that have been protesting in the streets and sending out declarations on social media are calling for institutional changes, not new aesthetic movements.” 

If we are to judge the state of arts institutions by the complaints of those artists and insiders who dare to raise their voices, the need for change is dire. Social media accounts like @changethemuseum and @cancelartgalleries are just some outlets that collect stories of unprofessionalism, abuse, racism and occasional law-breaking by museums and commercial galleries alike. These indictments are only the latest instalments of complaints already laid at the doors of museums and galleries by artists for years. In the eyes of many, the 21st-century art institution’s stated aspiration to rid itself of its toxic DNA has remained just that: an aspiration. All that’s new is PR.

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

While no-one disagrees in principle that institutions should change, just how precisely one goes about this endeavour is less clear. Who should take the initiative? Fusco doesn’t think it’s artists who should storm the barricades. Should it then be the arts professionals who are already protesting in the streets? Those arts professionals who are peers of the very same artists Fusco would like to spare from this particular struggle?

But aspects of this tug of war are already well underway, making use of both aesthetic and civic tools available to artists. Plenty of the grievances aimed at individuals and institutions – expressed anonymously, in #metoo accounts, or through mass boycotts – have been successful in denting structures of power, thereby proving that the complaints weren’t groundless. One recent example of this is the resignation of the arms manufacturer and arts philanthropist Warren Kanders from the board of the Whitney following pressure from artists. 

That the words ‘arms manufacturer’ and ‘arts philanthropist’ lie so closely together comes, in the words of Jenny Holzer, as no surprise; it also exposes as foolish the assumption that a predilection for art, however financially committed, is a conduit to moral virtue. We can’t assume, Fucsco noted, “that [social justice] is a shared value.” None of this, sadly, helps to address the ‘systemic’ problems of the institution. Not because it’d be a lifetime’s campaign to rid the museum of every tainted board member and the gallery of every unscrupulous dealer, but because the ‘systemic’ is embedded in us all. 

If the art world is toxic and abusive or if it is a traitor to its stated ideals, it cannot be solely because management teams have fallen prey to the corrupting influence of donors and sponsors. It’s also unlikely that a cabal of morally bankrupt players intentionally ruins the game for everyone. What is more probable is that any individual’s commitment to the presumed shared values is subject to constant evaluation in play with their position within a social and institutional hierarchy in a way that is at once challenging and complex. While social justice and equity can be the foundations of a universal morality, the individual ethics of artists, technicians, curators, educators and managers will likely differ in response to their experiences of the institution.

We only need to look back to Andrea Fraser’s take on institutional critique for a reminder that we are all inescapably implicated in the institution’s failures, whether through our desire for its endorsement, our resentment of its refusal, or even our rejection of its primacy. To be an artist or an arts professional is to bear responsibility for all the museum’s shortcomings. 

Put crudely: power corrupts, as does participation in any structure. But perhaps this experience need not be wasted on simply reproducing the very same system which corrupts in the first place. The good news in this charge is that arts professionals – and yes, artists – are the very people best placed to change the institution and to build alternatives to it. So if not us, then who?

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

Wherever we are is museum

Another struggle affecting most of the world may come in handy as an outsized illustration of a complex system trying to reform and break away from its zero-sum predicament. Climate change has been a preoccupation of activists and civil society for almost a decade, and many governments have now conceded that action is necessary. 

Despite the almost unanimous good intentions, not much has changed, and it would be easy to apportion blame to any component of the system: the politics are too complicated, lobby interests get in the way, and there’s a looming conceptual gap between the actions of individuals and those of societies at large. On closer inspection, it turns out that it’s the difficulty of negotiating values, and not moral disagreement, that is a barrier to action: a survey of UK parliamentarians, for example, suggested that social norms and relationships between lawmakers, and not the lack of political accord, are the root of the problem.

Arguably, where the fight to reduce carbon emissions has found a relatively easy win is in innovation such as wind power, where the already existing infrastructures of manufacturing, financing and distribution have been able to come together to create a revolution while only seeking reform. In the US, the business-minded aspects of the Green New Deal have the potential to achieve similar results by simply diverting the productive focus of the ‘business as usual’ model to greener ends. 

While it would be irresponsible to completely discount the role of pressures from activist groups in creating a political environment open to innovation, one must note that organisations such as Extinction Rebellion are often at odds with the very idea of business and capital. Despite this, occasionally, business and capital get things right. The key point here is that demand and innovation need to come together to create the conditions of change. The ‘system’ is unlikely to change under negative pressure alone unless it’s offered a viable and sustainable alternative. 

In the art world, then, activism, protest and desire for change need to be accompanied by innovation, speculation and experimentation: the very things that artists and arts professionals are trained for. Easier said than done, of course, because unlike the energy industry, the experimental structures in the arts lack capital, and unlike engineering, the arts aren’t all that good at communicating and expanding their learning. The former may be a structural deterrent, but the latter, the industry must take some responsibility for.Both the problems are visible in the struggles of small and medium-sized arts institutions in the era of Europe’s turn away from state funding and towards private philanthropy. A 2015 study revealed that most UK organisations’ business models were stuck with the same poor ideas: desperately opening cafés and courting the same group of donors while resenting the very idea of entrepreneurialism. That among the thousands of arts professionals involved in shaping these structures, no-one had ideas that better represent the values and desires of these often young and dynamic institutions beggars belief.

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

The resistance of the arts towards knowledge and skills from disciplines such as management and finance comes to the detriment of both the art and its institutions. It is all too easy to dismiss management as dehumanising, corrupt and responsible for the shortcomings of institutions as we know them, while to concentrate on concentrating on community building instead is immediately rewarding. In the long run, however, wouldn’t it be better to learn – and to steal – from management such techniques that can make the communities and the institutions that artists care about stronger? Who, if not artists, will innovate and bring these new institutions to life?

Fatima may want to think about cyber for just a minute

Who decides how much culture is enough?

The arts should have seen it coming: theatres and museums were amongst the first to close. Culture proclaimed itself to be in crisis as early as March, and little relief came with the lifting of the first wave of lockdown. The idea that stages and galleries would soon again be full and reemploy the thousands of workers they used to should have solicited some scepticism. 

The art community’s outraged response to a government campaign which suggested that the young ballet dancer Fatima may do well to consider a career in cyber security points to quite the opposite. Earlier, Rishi Sunak attracted the scorn of every artist, technician and arts manager when he suggested that some creatives may have to retrain. He had, after all, told us even in his  ‘good cop’ moments that not all jobs could be saved.

A National Cyber Security Centre campaign from 2019.

Parts of the artistic community thus welcomed the £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund with suspicion and a cry of betrayal. Arts jobs must be saved! Dancers have to dance, artists have to make art, curators have to curate… Remember when Trump laughed at the idea that Kentucky coal miners, with their “big beautiful hands”, would retrain as coders? That must be for a different kind of person altogether.

The government, in fact, has little interest in reforming lost artistic souls. Fatima, for example, was not a seasoned professional forced to throw away years of training and experience in pursuit of a suitable post-pandemic job, but part of a 2019 National Cyber Security Centre campaign encouraging school-age girls into careers in the digital sector through training and bursaries. Likewise, Rishi Sunak never suggested that cultural workers turn elsewhere, and ITV retracted the story. Yet the hair-trigger response reveals the art world’s deep and well-founded anxiety.

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

Supply and demand

Who, then, decides how much art is enough, and who gets to make it, manage it, and critique it before it reaches its audiences? Before the pandemic, some culture fared well in the free markets – think of the commercial successes of West End musicals, for example. Other art forms, like the visual arts or dance, made a good show of looking healthy between diminishing public funding and the infancy of private patronage.

As efficient as markets have been at determining cinema ticket prices and auction results of blue-chip art, they’re no help with an artistic work or experience that actively resists commodification. Culture has long maintained that its price tag is at best a reflection of labour or materiality. The emotional, ethical, or political aspects of contemporary art are more akin to the spiritual and eternal values mediated by religions than the market-driven premiums of fair-trade chocolate or ethical laundry detergent. In art, all products are marketed as ethical, redemptive and transcendental, or as disruptive, life-changing or quite simply genius.

The underlying story of art and artists in the past decades, however, has been one of a dramatic rise in the sheer volume of cultural production. Many more artists produced far more art in Britain in 2019 than at the end of the last century, but public demand had not necessarily kept up. Shepherding the sector into a post-pandemic world will take a lot more than a bailout. 

Let’s fill this town with artists

A major cultural change came at the turn of the century, which saw the arts – and visual art in particular – adopting a new, active role in responding to the mood of society. With new public funding and policy, art became an agent of social amelioration and change. Art schools expanded accordingly to train new armies of artists, and even the economic crisis of 2008 did not deflate their bubble for long. Britain would have all the artists it wanted to – and more.

By the time the public funding landscape changed in 2010, there were more than one eager artists for every job, exhibition, socially-engaged project, or commission available. The teenage Fatima would be well advised to think hard about her choice of career as many practising artists saw their earnings stagnate, and plenty of the younger ones struggled at the bottom rung of the career ladder where opportunities are rewarded with ‘exposure’ rather than cash. All the same, the idea of putting ‘artists first’ espoused publicly by arts institutions continued to cultivate the myth of the artist as a privileged visionary.

Here, art bears an uncanny resemblance to European religions. As parish priest, today’s average artist forgoes the riches of the cathedral or the power of the higher levels of the hierarchy. Their main reward is the respect of their communities, the ability to interpret cultural codes, and the power to ritually deliver supplicants from philistiny and intellectual impoverishment. The aesthetic mission of art tries to keep the same distance from the business of art’s societal impact as the church does between the gospel and its charitable work, which make arguments about the value of cultural enrichment about as complex as critiques of institutions of the church. 

Accounting for taste

What of demand for art and culture? Different sections of society take starkly divergent views of which artistic and cultural practices are desirable. Opera almost always commands significant state subsidies, offering indulgences, the highest levels of redemption for the bourgeoisies. Theatre, perhaps for its ability to speak to the present, has been more likely to pay its way. That Shakespeare’s Globe sustained itself commercially is a sign of the importance of heritage theatre to the national psyche: GCSE Macbeth gets one into purgatory at least.

Not so for all arts. The contemporary visual arts or contemporary dance, for example, could hardly survive at the mercy of their ticket-paying publics and philanthropists alone. It’s public subsidy, and the artificially low costs of artistic labour that have allowed a plethora of loss-making artistic institutions to survive and grow as they have.

Even if no government would diminish the importance of culture to society, it often falls on artists themselves to manufacture intellectually-satisfying levels of public demand for their art. It’s not just marketing, however. When the church struggled to solicit sufficient tithings from parishioners with god’s good news alone, it could always send in the devil as reinforcement. Perhaps to its detriment, art rarely scares its audiences into submission, but its institutions are the prime interpreters and valuers of non-commercial culture. It’s art and artists who decide how much art is enough, and this interpretative monopoly has driven the expansion of the arts priesthood over the past three decades. Knowingly, requests for supply-side subsidies are often framed in the language of demand. Arts Council England, for example, calls for ‘art for everyone’, whether they want it or not. 

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

Some art is better than no art, but more art is not always better than that

None of this has been a bad thing for audiences, and much of the arts was perfectly financially viable before the pandemic, at relatively low cost to the taxpayer. For artistic aspirants like Fatima, the arts offered nothing but encouragement, promising autonomy, the support of a powerful peer group, and offering the chance to change the world and shape public sensibilities – all while doing what one already loves. 

In fact, the industry has been in denial for years. The supply-success of cultural production comes at a relatively low cost to the taxpayer, but not without the level of rot one might have more readily associated with the exploitative aspects of shareholder capitalism. And what’s the one resource that art had no shortage of to address these institutional problems? Naturally, it has been more art. Audiences aren’t visiting your museum? Hire cheaper community artists to visit your audiences. Political art hasn’t yet started the revolution artists were promised at school? Run more social practice projects. Commercial galleries carve up the market leaving most artists without a chance of success? Produce more work critiquing galleries. Museums are corrupt and undemocratic? Have artists produce more institutional critique. Young artists are drowning in debt and waiting tables to make ends meet? Educate more artists so they can problematise the condition to their own unemployability.

Gross culture added

As the pandemic wrecked the cultural industries, a plea from the devil playbook of organised religion called on the public to remember artists in their dark hour. “If you think artists are useless, try to spend your quarantine without music, books, poems, movies or paintings”, cried one meme. This might have worked temporarily, but even if Netflix and Spotify saved the day, there’s still no easy way for the public to value the arts and artists directly should they wish to. As it stands, Fatima’s job is as good as gone, and if the arts dismiss the warning to ‘rethink, reskill, reboot’, they will do so at their peril.

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

In their refusal to deal with their systemic problems, the cultural industries have neglected to develop meaningful narratives of their social value, preferring to instead talk about economic contributions or the imperative of supporting artists in following their calling. The problem they face now is that neither of the arguments is particularly compelling at a time of crisis. Claims of the value of culture based on comparison with the size of the aviation industry have limited appeal, particularly taking into account the cost of diminished earning potential and unpaid student loans of arts graduates and other forms of welfare many artists depend on.

After the flood

One alternative to this battle for scarce resources and symbolic rewards is the Scandinavian model of state-sponsored no-strings-attached stipends for artists, last seen in the UK in the 1980s. For the country the size of Norway, this is an efficient way to support an artistic workforce: the state can effortlessly afford to educate and maintain, say, a thousand artists, and thus take the credit for the success of the country’s top thousand talents, regardless of whether these artists do much at all or not. At scale, this approach is expensive (remember the inexhaustible supply of artistic talent), and prone to making losses on its investments, unless it becomes merit-based and selective at the outset, determining who would become an artist perhaps by restricting the number of arts graduates. 

This latter valve-approach is what DCMS and its Culture Recovery Fund appear to favour. Allocating its cash to commercial organisations as much as to non-profits, Arts Council England nodded to a demand-led recovery, while Oliver Dowden appealed to museums to spend the money in an entrepreneurial manner. Elsewhere, policy announcements signalled a reversal of the supply-stimulating policies that ruled arts and humanities education for the past decades. Governments since 2010 have made it clear that they don’t wish to keep stimulating the supply of art, and on the understanding that the marginal benefit of training an extra artist tends to nil, the arts were sotto-voce singled out as an example of the kind of education the state no longer wishes to invest in.

What next for Fatima?

For many theatres and music venues, the worst may still be yet to come, but neither the assets nor the skills and talents of the arts ecosystem will dissipate this easily. It will take time and be no plain sailing for countless individuals, but where once stood a community arts centre or an experimental production house, we may eventually find a commercial operator who saw an opportunity in the gloom of the pandemic.

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

Fatima can for now remain hopeful that the industry she loves will find some space for her in the future – if she can survive the next year or so, that is. Ironically, although to no consolation, the competition for scarce opportunities and the struggle to become a professional artist may well have prepared her to cope better with the uncertainties of her frayed industry. 

It may be the government’s softly-stated desire that in time, there will be fewer young Fatimas competing for the more market-appropriate number and kinds of artistic jobs, saving the taxpayers money on both supply and demand. Such a policy would be at best short-sighted, but perhaps go some way to demonstrating the evasive values of culture to society just as that culture becomes replaced by something else altogether.

For now, young people will continue to flock to the arts, even with the full knowledge of the sacrifices they might likely endure – not because they didn’t have the talents to become cyber security experts, but because the arts are about the only realm of contemporary life that sometimes still deliver on their promises of authenticity, freedom, and agency.