The Discreet Charm of the Artistic Elite

Or the Making of the Professional Art-managerial Class

Spring is here and it’s time to head into the garden. I share my allotment in central London with about thirty other locals, most of whom live in social housing. We have a WhatsApp group through which we arrange get-togethers and argue about the best way to grow spinach. The little administration that needs to happen happens mostly by itself. Someone tends to the trees, someone else plants flowers in the communal patches, another obsessively clears out weeds. I take perverse pleasure in maintaining the compost heap. The garden feels like a healthy ecosystem of plants, land, and people, an exemplar of happy community life.

How did this idyll come to be? It wasn’t in the city planners’ master design for post-war living, it isn’t part of the local council’s allotment scheme, and it wasn’t even the result of a few locals’ good intentions. No, my community garden is an art project. Let that sink in: the vegetable patch where I grow kale and where slugs eat my lettuce was initiated by an artist collective. Every aspect of the vegetable patch was originally decided on by an artist. Artists brought the community together, mediated interests, divided plots, and allocated flower beds. When the artists did all these things, they did them as artists (all be it as artists that specialise in community and land projects) rather than as members of the community.

Five different funding organisations supported the artists’ work with the community. For months and years, the artists came and went, orchestrating events like communal bread-making and maypole dancing, each recorded eagerly with their 16mm film camera. Ten years after the project began and with the help of yet another public funding agency, the artists presented their artistic film work in an exhibition at a local non-profit gallery. The exhibition text boasted of the housing estate’s “Bangladeshi, European, Kurdish, Serbian, Turkish, Ugandan and West Indian communities” that came together in the making of the garden and the artworks.

Isn’t my garden a living example of culture doing what it does best, that is bringing people together and helping them work towards a shared purpose? Don’t we want to cooperate for more community gardens and more exhibitions? If there is some conflict between the artists’ and the participants’ interests, don’t we know how to resolve it ethically and with care? Isn’t the outcome a net positive for all involved? These are all pertinent questions that the art world answers in the positive, as do the communities, by and large. But there’s another dimension that causes me concern: did my community need artists to start an ad-hoc vegetable garden? Did my community need artists to become a community?

The great replacement

The terms ‘social practice’ or ‘socially engaged art’ could describe any number of activities ranging from the building of gardens, running after-school activities for children, leading walking clubs, to hosting dance classes. The one thing that these examples of socially engaged art have in common is that artists are involved. This practice came of age in the early years of the millennium in part as a by-product of the New Labour Government’s investment in the creative industries and the arts. The policy and political mechanisms that facilitated this evolution were complex and remain contested[1]David Hesmondhalgh et al., Culture, Economy and Politics: The Case of New Labour (Springer, 2015). but at ground level, it appeared as though the state’s mechanisms of policing, social work, welfare, and even healthcare were being replaced by arts interventions. Where once a social worker looked out for the young people of a housing estate, there was instead an artist leading a mural-painting workshop. Schools facing pressures found it easier to access funding for artist-in-residence programmes than for teachers. Eventually, under the aegis of ‘social proscribing’ healthcare professionals were asked to try sending some patients to pottery classes instead of burdening mental health services with them.

Cynically, one may observe that artists are cheaper than police officers or doctors. Almost as cynically, one may argue that artists are nearly as effective at holding communities together as the crumbling structures of the welfare state around them once were. In the decade of austerity economics followed by the pandemic crisis, calls on art’s ability to pick up the slack of civil society have only intensified. In principle, this is a golden formula: culture and artists have contributed to the public sphere for millennia. As demand for art’s social interventions grew, social practice became a viable career alternative for the ever-growing number of art school graduates and a generation of artists have now been trained in supporting communities.

Murals are chapter than social workers. Photo: Emily/flickr.

But what happens when the army of social art practitioners grows so large that it begins to make structural demands of its own? Who are socially engaged artists if we were to think of them as a professional class? How are they, as a guild, predisposed towards the communities they serve and towards the professions they have come to replace?

Artist-managers for the community

Artists can participate in communities in many ways. Sometimes, they may volunteer their skills and resources for the benefit of others. When they do that, artists hold no exalted space in the community’s hierarchical structures, at least not one that would automatically rank them ahead of nurses, teachers, or housewives.

In other situations, artists hold a degree of power over other members of their communities. As in my allotment garden, artists often act as the initiators and managers of projects that touch on questions of access to essential communal resources. In return, they receive a fee and are given the freedom to shape their projects. Such control may be subject to codes but in no small sense, artists working with communities can sometimes decide who gets to grow potatoes and who doesn’t.

With artists now deployed to serve community needs as diverse as social cohesion, crime prevention, employability, or access to training, let alone the physical state of social housing, community centres, or parks, the class interests of artists in these processes are not a trivial matter. Often, the power relationships follow straightforward Bourdesian lines. The Austrian artistic collective WochenKlausur, for example, has been practising ‘social intervention’ since 1993 and describes access to “an infrastructural framework and cultural capital” of an art institution as a “prerequisite” for every project”.[2]‘Method’, WochenKlausur, accessed 14 March 2022, WochenKlausur’s forty projects have included the renovation of a refugee hostel in Sweden and home improvements in a neighbourhood in Israel.

Why would it take contractor-artists to decide on the furnishings that refugees sleep on? Why do Viennese creatives need to exert control over whose house in Holon should have its faulty plumbing fixed? Crucially, why should WochenKlausur be handed control of the capital – both tangible and symbolic – on which their client communities depend? What is WochenKausur’s role in these endeavours if not that of professional – by which I mean remunerated – project managers?

WochenKlausur, Artistic Strategies in Psychiatry, 2016.

Perhaps social practice should be applauded for bringing art’s resources and skills, including access to arts funding, to communities. Sometimes, however, WochenKlausur appear to be doing the opposite and extracting resources from their subjects. Their 2016 residency in a mental health institution in the Netherlands is a clear example. After spending a period ‘researching’ the organisation, the artists negotiated further access – and further funding –  for a further artist to make a further intervention into the life of the hospital. While the collective’s website glosses over the project’s potential benefit to the hospital’s patients, its focus is to advocate for the importance of employing – and paying – artists as figures crucial to the provision of public health services.[3]WochenKlausur, Artistic Strategies in Psychiatry, 2016,

Art versus the community

Was WochenKlausur’s ‘artistic intervention’ performed for the benefit of a local Dutch community, or were artists themselves its greater recipient? Is it a coincidence that most of the subjects of the collective’s interventions are among the most disadvantaged in society while their facilitators are institutionally-credentialled artists and project managers? Is the artist’s participation in all these social projects strictly essential? Given that community gardens had existed without the involvement of art school graduates for decades, the role of artists in such initiatives may legitimately be called into question. 

I am not questioning art’s utility in solving social problems – this issue has received ample attention elsewhere. Instead, my interest lies in the unintended consequences of introducing artists as problem solvers at a mass scale and the costs associated with using them to replace structures that already had other solutions. At one level, the implications are practical: what proportion of the resources available for, for example, building a children’s adventure playground in Glasgow should be spent on artists’ fees and on publicising such a project when its designers Assemble win the Turner Prize?[4]Assemble. Granby Four Streets. 2013. What precedent does the distribution of resources in such a manner set for the construction of future playgrounds?

To understand how artists may behave when they are deployed into communities under a failing social contract, we must come to think of them as a class, a Professional Art-managerial Class.[5]I am not referring here to the profession of arts management but rather suggest that artists have become professional project managers. The first step in ascribing a class consciousness to artists is to consider their group affinity as recipients of a distinct type of training: the MFA holds a certain mystique to outsiders which separates the in-group from the out-group.[6]Lennart G Svensson, ‘Occupations and Professionalism in Art and Culture’, Professions and Professionalism 5, no. 2 (2015). Artists have access to shared knowledge and because much art education concerned with social practice follows progressive tenets, socially engaged artists can be united by a shared political outlook and aims.

The increasingly widespread access to art school education and its rarefied status leads me to consider artists as a contemporary mass elite, even though this term is highly unpopular among practitioners concerned with democratising access to the arts. This class shows many of the hallmarks of the elites described by Christopher Lasch in the 1990s,[7]Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, History. Cultural Studies (W. W. Norton, 1996). in particular its opposition to the traditional bourgeoisie, heightened geographic mobility, and a sense of rootlessness associated with social obligations that can be rewritten arbitrarily. For curator Nicolas Bourriaud harbouring thoughts of the altermodern in 2009, these were all conditions for a new practice that set the artistic elites apart from other social classes. Paradoxically, societal relationships were the very material of relational aesthetics and the social practices that succeeded it.

Assemble. Granby Four Streets. 2013.

What happens when aspirations of global mobility and unencumbered intellectualism meet the realities of fierce competition and institutionalised instrumentalism? By 2015, imagining oneself to be an altermodern citizen of the world meant, in the words of Prime Minister Theresa May, being a “citizen of nowhere”. Of course, May was not singling out artists, but she was contending with a liberal society that was oversaturated with cultural elites who refused to fall in line with their diminishing political and economic power. Something fundamental had happened in the past few decades: armies of expensively-trained graduates were spending their lives doing data entry for 10% above minimum wage and wondering where all their aspirations went. The easyJet fantasy of freedom had diminishing returns.

Many of those disenchanted graduates were artists. The growth of the visual arts sector and its art schools in the past twenty years has led to an overproduction of elites, a phenomenon described by the historian Peter Turchin.[8]Peter Turchin, Ages of Discord: A Structural-Demographic Analysis of American History (Beresta Books, 2016). Elite overproduction has been characteristic of developed liberal societies in which the supply of university graduates has outpaced the growth in cognitive industries. The result is the oversupply of highly skilled workers who end up underemployed and underpaid.

If this sounds familiar, it is because there are many more artists in Western economies than there are good jobs for artists. The arts industry is in unfaltering denial of this imbalance as it argues for never-ending expansion, but it is no secret that the majority of art school graduates struggle to survive in an ecosystem that thrives on a steady flow of new, cheap talent. To add to the shared political orientation ingrained in them by the art school, artists are now bound together by their material experiences that involve the balancing of personal, social, intellectual, and artistic interests with subpar working conditions.

The Unprofessional Managerial Class

If low wages are one of the side-effects of this imbalance in the supply and demand of labour, another is the artificial expansion of art’s remit beyond its traditionally occupied realms. With this come questions of artists’ preparedness to address issues that are not primarily aesthetic but they are not news: debates over the art’s true commitment to politics have raged at least since the French Surrealists declared themselves anticapitalistic in the 1920s.[9]Abigail Susik, Surrealist Sabotage and the War on Work, 2021. What is different today is the sheer size of the art world and the staggering number of art professionals. How many social practice artists are there in the world today? Tens, hundreds of thousands? How many more curators, outreach workers, publicists?[10]While I concentrate on the UK in this text, interest in social practice is now globally universal. Even political systems like China’s have made space for socially engaged art. See, for example, M. Wang, Socially Engaged Art in … see more

By the time there are more artists in the world than there are HR managers, it is no longer adequate to understand the class politics of this group by referring to their individual practices alone. Indeed, it is the practices that are shaped by the class interests of the practitioners. In that light, art’s interest in fields as diverse as school education or political campaigning is driven by the protectionist logic of a guild or a cartel. In other words, artists, and in particular those artists who operate outside the commercial art market, have become a professional-managerial class of their own. And as they acquire class consciousness, the preservation of their elusive grip on power becomes their key interest. 

This may be difficult to swallow, so consider instead the ‘class’ formation of human resources managers, the ultimate exponent of the professional-managerial class. As the practice of HR management has matured, HR managers have formed guilds, research institutes, and lobby groups. Their guilds guard entry into the profession by demanding that aspirants undertake costly training. Imagine, next, that despite this barrier, human resource management attracts so many aspirants that with time, the number of freshly qualified HR professionals vastly outstrips the demand for them in business circles.

How might the HR guild react to this scenario? Unless the economy expands and brings with it new employment prospects, all HR managers would be looking at a drop in wages. The guild could try and dissuade the trainees from pursuing their careers, except that that stands against the principles of their profession. Another solution could be to raise the status of HR management and thus artificially expand the demand for it within existing businesses. What if it suddenly became ‘more equitable’ for an HR professional to mediate all employee holiday requests? What if the workplace canteen came under the aegis of staff ‘welfare’ and now required new managerial processes that gave work to endless committees? Would it be so very difficult to convince workers that HR personnel were indispensable to the provision of bike racks in the office? Wouldn’t more senior HRs be needed to manage their juniors, too?

The purpose of HR management is to create more HR management. Photo: Rawpixel Ltd/flickr.

It is obvious where this ‘HR Karenism’[11]A phrase I borrow from Geoff Shullenberger, ‘HR-Karenism and Its Enemies with Malcolm Kyeyune’, Outsider Theory, 2022., is going. In a world where HR managers decide how many HR managers are needed and why, everything becomes a matter for HR and HR becomes critical to everything.[12]Indeed, this is borne out even in the evolving terminology of HR: the practice used to be called ‘personnel’, then ‘human resources’. Now, HR managers are responsible for ‘culture and people’. The parallels with social practices’ … see more In the first instance, such manipulation of the market does expand the employment prospects for HR professionals but in the long-term, wages tail off as businesses confront their soaring HR bills. So as more HR officers grind away at increasingly meaningless forms of intermediation, their work satisfaction, and indeed their power over the office, diminishes. Despite, if not because of its success, the professional-managerial class is left feeling bitter and disenfranchised.

Between Bohemia and managerialism 

But if the HR manager makes a living by mediating between the employee and the employer, why shouldn’t a social artist do the same by standing between local government and social housing dwellers? The function of both professions in their respective value chains seems arbitrary but it does not always appear to be wholly negative. The problem in this practice of profit extraction is that the various forms of capital that the managerial elites and artists trade do not originate with them. HR does not, contrary to its name, stand for human resources, it merely collects a premium on the concept. Social artists do not have a monopoly over the social. They do not even have a monopoly over art.

Nor are the artists themselves the target beneficiary community of their social practices. How disempowering must it feel to be providing cut-price social services, knowing that a social worker would be both better and better-paid? The Professional Art-managerial Class’ response to this sorry situation has been to reframe itself as a working class. Multiple attempts have been made by scholars to rehabilitate the idea of artistic work as labour.[13]Leigh Claire La Berge, Wages Against Artwork: Decommodified Labor and the Claims of Socially Engaged Art (Duke University Press, 2019); Danielle Child, Working Aesthetics: Labour, Art and Capitalism, Radical Aesthetics-Radical Art … see more There is even a magazine called Arts of the Working Class[14]I contributed to AoWC twice and both times I felt pressured by the editors to portray artists in a positive light. whose editorial manifesto seems to be that all artists, save perhaps for those class traitors who sell their wares in the art market, are the deserving working class.

But the Professional Art-managerial Class’ grip on what the working class is just as loose as the PMC’s. How much do university-educated creatives who work with some of the world’s most prestigious cultural institutions have in common with truck drivers or farm labourers? Indeed, the discourse of diversity, access, and representation in the arts has been fashionable of late, but for all its claims, the art school and the art world remain thoroughly middle-class in origin.[15]S Friedman and D Laurison, The Class Ceiling: Why It Pays to Be Privileged (Policy Press, 2019). This means that when the artists present themselves as synonymous with the deserving community,[16]I acknowledge that this impulse is not unnatural; I recall using a similar argument in an application for public funding circa 2009. the working classes who are ostensibly the beneficiary targets of social practice interventions are nowhere near to call them out on this bluff.

And yet, the precarity of the gig-economy that now plagues the working classes is nothing short of artistic fantasy. Ask an art school undergraduate and chances are that they’ll gesture at the creative freedoms of the Romantics or the aesthetic appeal of Bohemian lifestyles. The prospect of living ‘down-and-out in the art world’s capitals’ is so alluring because it promises to make good of the failed promises of liberal individualism. But it won’t be long before the same art student will have to confront the brutal realities of their fantasy, the interests of their client communities, and the managerialism of the institutions and liberal capital that they embody.

This class plight has the very same destabilising effect on communities and their ability to self-determine that Lasch saw in the lot of the wealthy ‘global’ elites. Turchin’s conceptualisation of elite overproduction accounts for the financial instability of the PMC and extends Lasch’s dark prognosis directly to their feet. The overabundance of elites is a burden on society and the economy because a growing proportion of society devotes itself to forms of unnecessary or non-productive labour. More, in a backlash against their material conditions, the same elites are driven to undermine the very relationship between social classes. For the Professional Art-managerial Class, the class logic is clear: as long as artists despise the bourgeoisie, there are doomed to emulate it. And if they despise the working class too, they want nothing more than to portray themselves as revolutionary class heroes.

La communauté, c’et moi

If artists have succeeded in convincing themselves that they are the communities, then the slogan ‘nothing about us without us’ takes on an expanded meaning. When artists claim to be the arbiters of what benefits communities, they exert oversized control over the social conditions of growing aspects of society. This may lead to positive changes, no doubt, but we only have the artists’ word for it: the social workers and educators who could have held artists’ ideas to account are long gone.

In this world of few checks and balances, the next logical step for the PAC guilds is what Martin Kyeyune described as ‘selling fire insurance’. Where the managerial elite has no legitimate claim on the production value chains, it can always turn to extortion.[17]At first, this took place within the practice of art itself: consider the meteoric rise of the contemporary art curator in the first decade of the century and the rebalancing of power that this caused within the artistic sphere. But this couldn’t … see more Having forcibly inserted themselves into the processes of community-making or influencing public opinion, artist-managers are naturally incentivized to manipulate their subject’s interests until they serve their own too. The mechanism by which this happens is illusory and artists and their institutions will downplay it by pointing to debates on the ethics of social practices. But the effect is demonstrably that artists call the shots on whether a community’s interests are legitimate through the prism of their own interests and that artists determine if a political opinion is acceptable by checking if it serves their own class agenda. For evidence, one needs only to look to the gentrifying work of the architectural/artistic practice Assemble or the artistic class’ univocal opposition to Brexit. There can be no social or political art that opposes the artist’s politics. The power that the elite hold over the social need not even be made explicit. As Kyeyune jested, a veiled threat like “nice enterprise you have here, it would be a shame if someone called it homophobic” will suffice.[18]Shullenberger. The artist-manager, therefore, holds the ultimate control over what shape politics takes. Could a world built under such conditions not serve the art-managerial class?

Wolfgang Tillmans’ anti-Brexit campaign posters. Phot: M. Bertrand

In my community garden, I have often been asked to make decisions or to adjudicate minor conflicts over the ownership of tomato plants. I attract the respect of the community not because I have earned it but because of my class association with the artists, now long gone, who founded the garden. It is hard not to notice how disempowering such dependency on a managerial class is to working-class communities. If my neighbours feel beholden to the likes of me over access to the vegetable patch, it is no wonder that many like them feel ‘left behind’ in more important liberal power negotiations. 

What happens here is the very opposite of the ‘big society’. It may be that a community once capable of self-determination had lost some of its charms under the conditions of neoliberal isolation, but the state-appointed big society mediator run off with the means of political reproduction.

Seeking rent on cultural capital

The Professional Art-managerial Class’ logic of protectionism promises a profound shift in the allocation of power in favour of the artist. But even this has had severe limitations: what good is prestige under capitalism? In a world where the exploitation of capital resources is the only alternative to labour, artists can hardly be blamed for trying to turn their status into profit. The guild offers some ideas here: why not lend out scraps of your cultural capital for interest?

Oliver,[19]I changed the name and some details to spare my friend embarrassment. an artist I know runs a project space on the social housing estate adjoining my community garden. Few of the locals understand why he chose to open an art gallery so far away from the art world’s better-trodden paths. It all started with good intentions but after a few years of enthusiastic programming and creative experimentation, Oliver appears to have lost his former interest in staging exhibitions. It’s hard to tell why: perhaps the locals’ bewilderment at seeing contemporary art next to a pizza joint was not what he wanted. Today, the project space is more often rented out commercially than it is programmed by its owner. 

But even though Oliver now has no artistic dialogue with the architects, fashion designers, or artists who occasionally lease his space for exhibitions or events and even though they pay market rents, he likens his role as the landlord to that of a community elder. So confident is he in his beneficence that he demanded that local authorities support his enterprise as a work of essential public merit. The supreme irony of this story is that before Oliver took control of the space, it was provided by the local council as a pop-up venue to an unfunded amateur community craft group, free of charge.

Not glamorous but.. free. Photo: patita pirata/flickr

One may judge Oliver’s initiative for its complicity with processes of displacement and gentrification and thus disqualify him from the membership of the revolutionary class. But if the artist can extract rent on cultural capital, can he also collect cultural capital on physical property? It is telling the one time that Oliver’s gallery space was rented by a group of young black artists – a demographic in high demand for any art organization – my (white) friend boasted about his community-benefactor publicly role with double his usual zeal. 

Back on the vegetable patch

Easy as it is to caricature, the discreet charm of the Professional Art-managerial Class is irresistible: no number of essays on the ethics of social practice can render a whole class immune to the temptations of resource extraction or status-seeking. And it is in times of crisis that the campaign of strategic intermediation which the artistic elites have been embroiled in for decades becomes most graspable and most profitable. 

Sometimes, this is because art is particularly adept at capturing excesses in symbolic capital. This was the case, for example, during the Covid lockdowns when the initiative Artist Food Bank Network spent as much attention branding their no doubt commendable work as art as they did on feeding those in need. Other times, the PAC may be far more protectionist under the guise of benevolent solidarity. Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, to take one poignant example, has given rise to no end of initiatives organised by artists for other artists. Art schools in Germany and Finland have opened their scholarship programmes to Ukrainian artists and residency projects across Europe have offered studio spaces to Ukrainian curators as a matter of priority.[20]Biedarieva, Svitlana. ‘Funding, Shelter and Emergency Resources for Artists Affected by War in Ukraine—and How You Can Support Them’. The Art Newspaper, 4 March … see more. There is, of course, nothing wrong with these gestures per se and neither are they extraordinary.[21]For example, Jewish communities in the UK have collected money to help Ukrainian Jews seeking refuge in Israel. But why not, at a moment of acute stress, ‘artists for accountants’ or ‘artists for the elderly’? Or, echoing ‘art for all’, why not ‘artists for everyone’? Seeing their members under profound existential stress, the artistic elites are united by shared class consciousness and are drawn to close ranks. This, surely, is the making of a social class.

Nikita Kadan, Limits of Responsibility, 2014, installation, sculpture, metal, painted wood, earth and vegetables, 36 colour slides, 3 book facsimiles, 2014

In the end, everything comes down to the soil. After Russia annexed Crimea, the Ukrainian artist Nikita Kadan became the Western art world’s go-to spokesperson for his country. His 2014 work Limits of Responsibility captured the peculiar symbiosis of protesters and vegetables during the Maidan protest as some of the long-term demonstrators in Kyiv’s main square turned the very ground they occupied into a produce garden.[22]Nikita Kadan, Limits of Responsibility, 2014, installation, sculpture, metal, painted wood, earth and vegetables, 36 colour slides, 3 book facsimiles, 2014.

Kadan’s installation and photographs play out the Euromaidan movement’s relationship to land, to a homeland, as a resource that nurtures those who look after it well. Could Kadan’s portrayal of Maidan’s ad-hoc community-building in which he is an observer-participant be any further from the managerial control of my garden’s community artists? In the wake of the ongoing supply chain crises and the impending cost of living crisis, my entitlement to enjoy my community garden’s harvest may yet become more than symbolic.

I borrow the title from Buñuel and from Shannan Clark, The Making of the American Creative Class: New York’s Culture Workers and Twentieth-Century Consumer Capitalism (Oxford University Press, 2020).