‘Après moi le deluge! is the watchword of every capitalist and of every capitalist nation.’
‘It will be the same world, just a bit worse.’
1. Damien Hirst and the YBAs as neoliberal art elite
In 2017 Damien Hirst, the notorious Young British Artist (YBA)—who has been ‘Young’ for such a long time now that he probably needs to be considered forever young—launched his latest extravaganza at the peak global art-industry show, best known to hoi polloi as the Venice Biennale. The show, entitled Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, took a preposterous fictional scenario as its premise: a decade prior to the Venice show, an ancient wreck named the Unbelievable, loaded with the prized booty of a first-century-CE manumitted slave, Cif Amotan II—an anagram for ‘I am a fiction’—was salvaged off the coast of East Africa with Hirst’s own money, and now, semi-restored for posterity, it was being exhibited as a world first for the public’s delectation.
The works themselves have been widely summed up as self-reflexive gargantuan kitsch. Outside the Punta Della Dogana, one of the show’s two sites—the other was Palazzo Grassi; both are run by French billionaire François Pinault’s foundation—Hirst had placed a Carrara-marble sculpture of a man on a horse about to be devoured by a vast python as a pastiche, site-specific come-on. Inside the buildings there were screens presenting footage of the putative excavation; huge light boxes dramatising underwater moments of discovery; scorpions in gold studded with precious gems; a bronze The Collector with Friend, in which a humanoid confection (allegedly a self-portrait of Hirst himself) holds the hand of what looks to be a Mickey Mouse avatar encrusted with fake barnacles and associated sea life; a tall coral Kali, the Indian goddess, battling the many-headed Hydra; a painted-resin figure entitled Demon with Bowl; a black granite Minotaur fucking a woman in the missionary position; a scale model of the ship Unbelievable; and so on and on. The show was replete with multiples: some purporting to be originals, yet others copies, still others reconstructions, integrating the hyper-differentiated economics of the current art market into the tombs and busts and stones themselves. The excessive size of so many pieces, the outrageous expense of their materials, the knowing museal references, the erotics of violence and domination, the sly nods to the intersection of scholarship and conspiracy theory, the lascivious courting of spectacle and capital—did it add up to anything more than a set of Instagrammable moments?
Hirst’s conceit—in every sense of the word—seemed eager to reveal all its pseudo-conceptual levels at once. Hirst purports to occupy the roles of financier, adman, entrepreneur, archaeologist, director, curator and copyist simultaneously—and probably more besides. The ‘artist’ is no longer simply an individual maker, an avant-garde visionary, a person exploring the specifics and limits of a medium, or indeed any of the other familiar figures of aesthetic modernity. Instead, the ‘artist’ is marked out by their success at doing exactly what late capitalism demands—that is, everything, and in a flagrantly vacuous way.
As Tiernan Morgan wrote in a scathing review, Hirst’s show ‘is not an exhibition. It’s a showroom for oligarchs. Comprised of about 190 works, including gold, silver, bronze, and marble sculptures, the show is undoubtedly the most expensive artistic flop in living memory’. Andrew Russeth wasn’t any less forthright, his header reading ‘Disastrous Damien Hirst Show in Venice’. As for Andrew Goldstein, Hirst was his pick for the round-up ‘Here are the Absolute Worst Artworks We Saw Around the World in 2017’. Yet for every severe art-critical judgement, there were countless enthusiastic punters. So if the question is this the end of the dominance of Hirst as a global art force? was widely posed, the answer turned out to be the same as for the financial houses of Wall Street and the multinational corporations whose rapacity directly and deleteriously affects environment and society: yes, of course, but they’re too big to fail, so no. Hirst’s is an art of post-scandal and bailout, of neoliberal cynicism and exploitation, which rubs in its audience’s faces its outrageous failure to fail.
As a paradigm of aesthetic neoliberalism, ‘Hirst’ incarnates the simultaneous apotheosis and collapse of a sequence of art-making that runs from the mid-nineteenth century to about 1999. From realist painters such as Gustave Courbet up to and even including Andy Warhol, if the radical artist was linked to innovation, to shock and to scandal, they were still embedded in a set of semi-autonomous institutions ranging from state museums, universities, mass media, specialist journals, training institutions, private galleries and other less identifiable spaces (such as artist-run galleries), with their own odd routines and financial and symbolic support. Neoliberal aesthetics is the stripping back and merging of the variety of such institutions to the point of collapse, where only a few winners squeak through at the total expense of all others. The ‘ecology of art’ becomes the plaything of a few billionaires and endowed institutions at the top end; at the other, there is such a proliferation, pluralisation and precaritisation of sites and personnel that there is no longer any putative social, institutional or material addressee able to reliably stabilise a project, let alone a career, for very long. In this economisation of all things, ‘art’ itself becomes pragmatically indistinguishable from the leisure-and-entertainment industry, even ‘communications’ in general. It also means that ‘The Arts’ are only ever one financial event away from existential crisis.
2. The pandemic and the working artist
If the 2020 global pandemic of COVID-19 has radically disrupted every industry on the planet, ‘The Arts’ have been hit particularly badly. Perhaps only the travel and hospitality industries, with which the arts are very closely integrated in many familiar as well as unfamiliar ways, are likely doing worse under the crazy circumstances. Let’s also emphasise the word disrupted here, for it’s one that has taken on a peculiar destiny in the twenty-first century: we’ll come back to it below. Yet if all ‘The Arts’—with the definite article and the capitalised singular plural noun—have suffered from the pandemic, they’ve suffered in different ways.
Performance in general—anything predicated upon people in proximity to one another, mingling, breathing, sharing the same atmosphere—has prima facie suffered most. Nearly all such IRL venues have been almost completely shuttered, from the tiny to the grand, from the low to the high, from the niche to the mass market. Whether you’re a local pub specialising in thrice-weekly death metal or a state venue home to a symphony orchestra, you’re basically toast. Michaela Boland, reporting for the ABC, noted that ‘nearly all Australian arts venues dimmed the lights in late March, instantly losing the income they earned from rentals, box office and some sponsorship’. In Australia, the earliest high-profile casualty was perhaps Carriageworks, a Sydney multi-arts venue that typically hosted events from experimental art to writers festivals and farmers markets, which was forced into administration in early May 2020. After all, as Boland writes: ‘Most organisations can only survive with rent relief and prompt or early grant payments from their state or local governments’. But such relief and grant payments can precisely no longer be relied upon—and not only under Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s flagrantly hostile Liberal–National Party (LNP) government.
Volatile locally, the effects concatenate globally. The well-known transnational performance company Cirque du Soleil, originally founded in Québec in the mid-1980s, almost immediately ‘laid off 4679 employees—about 95 percent of its workforce—on March 19 after shutting down 44 productions to comply with government orders around the world’, as Paula Sambo and Sandrine Rastello reported. Within a couple of months, the company had filed for bankruptcy. Sambo and Rastello noted, ‘The crisis hit the 36-year-old company just as it emerged from a string of acquisitions, which helped it diversify from its original acrobatic shows but also put it deeper into debt’. You can see the issue: the corporate restructuring of all life that has been accelerating since the 1980s exposes, under the extraordinary epidemiological conditions of globalised late capitalism, what the great eighteenth-century critic Samuel Johnson denominated ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’. If anyone was still wandering around Melbourne well into July 2020, they could have seen now-melancholy advertisements for the wildly reviewed but now definitively cancelled Cirque du Soleil spectacular KURIOS gracing local trams. A ‘State of Disaster’ indeed.
Every attempt to parlay this disaster into a cautious relaxation of restrictions seems doomed to fail in the face and feet of the human animal’s propensity for transgressive enjoyment. As one anonymous wit wrote on Twitter about Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s attempt to reopen nightclubs in July 2020 for the good of the entertainment economy:
Can’t wait to get back to the club
To dance to the disco & dub!
But Anna’s mandated
I’m gonna get gated
Unless I stay still as a grub.
Palaszczuk had reportedly remarked ‘young people can still sit down and enjoy a meal’ and ‘listen to the music’, but, as it turned out—to nobody’s surprise—social media immediately started sharing video images of the aforementioned ‘young people’ cutting loose on the floor. So the effects go far beyond professional public performances themselves to everyday routines of participatory leisure.
On Friday 24 April 2020, an open letter responding to Paul Fletcher, federal Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts—as if that conflation of heterogeneous practices under a single portfolio didn’t itself signify disaster—appeared in The Guardian. Entitled ‘“If our government wants cultural life to return, it must act now”: an open letter from Australia’s arts industry’, and signed by almost 100 arts groups, it was packed with facts and figures. Yet facts don’t count for anything in the current situation, except perhaps as an object lesson in making oneself abject for the enjoyment of your avowed enemies.
The letter itself reprised an earlier open letter from the ‘Creative Industry’ to the prime minister, ministers and lord mayors regarding the consequences of COVID-19, which had previously been posted on the website of the National Association for the Visual Arts. As one would expect, all versions of these letters are essentially a form of political begging. ‘Targeted stimulus to a value of 2% of the $111.7 billion industry is required’, it announced, continuing: ‘Our organisations represent the full diversity of Australia’s creative, cultural and entertainment industries. Cultural and creative activity contributes in excess of $110 billion to Australia’s economy each year’. The letter urged, among other things, basic support for First Peoples and First Nations creators, a cash injection to affected businesses, $180 million for the Australia Council, rent relief and security for leaseholders, wage subsidies, and enhanced tax incentives for private giving. Fat chance. Once again, the begging and wheedling are not only evidence of the current crisis but expose the weak, residual state of once-great modern institutions that today have little to no leverage in the face of neoliberal operations of privatisation.
Indeed, all the evidence suggests that the government does not want to fund the arts at all. Is it that the government and its sponsors simply have no culture? No: Italian critic Furio Jesi was, to the contrary, very convinced of the ‘culture of the right’, and there is unquestionably one. Or rather, there are a lot. Consider the stereotypical conservative investment in opera and elite classics, the idiosyncratic billionaire investor, radical Redditors and 4-channers, and the funding of military museums and nationalistic parades—there are very many cultures of the Right. And if few accord with each other, all agree that the arts as they stand are a hotbed of left-wing sedition and/or risible nonsense, better off dead. If some of these right-wing staples are themselves going down in the pandemic, they’re sure as hell going to take their enemies with them.
Australia seems particularly cutting-edge in this regard. As critic Lauren Harris lamented in a tweet of 11 May 2020: ‘It’s time to stop calling this an arts crisis. What we’re seeing is the managed decline of the arts & cultural policy. Successive governments, politicians, policy makers & bureaucrats have architected or observed cut after cut after cut—phasing out public funding of the arts’. The situation could not be better summed up. The integration of ‘The Arts’ into ‘creativity’, and ‘creativity’ into ‘communications’, and ‘communications’ into ‘cyber safety’ has been one hallucinatory line of division; its absorption into sport and screens—that is, the generalised entertainment industry—has been another. So when the Australian government finally unveiled its nominal ‘rescue plan’ for The Arts in June 2020, it was not only too little, too late, but flagrantly contemptuous. As Ben Eltham wrote in The Guardian on 7 August, ‘The Morrison government’s long-awaited $250 million arts package, announced in June, has not been spent yet—and it could take more than three months for the money to start flowing’. Another jubilant sneer, another LNP triumph. Compared to the ‘rescue packages’ of other countries, it has so far proved worse than useless.
But it’s not just the ‘arts industry’ ‘proper’ that is being cast into dire straits: the universities are also seriously threatened. As Fergus Hunter reported in The Sydney Morning Herald on 7 May 2020, ‘Tens of thousands of research positions at universities are in jeopardy because of the COVID-19 crisis, prompting the sector to call for boosted government funding to plug the hole left by lost international education revenue’. Part of the problem of the sector’s ‘call’ is that the government is clearly excited by the prospect of its discomfiture and decline. Sure, the universities claim that it’s not just present jobs or future outcomes that are at stake but in fact the entire network—the ecology or environment, if you prefer—of research, training, outreach and ongoing employment. Deborah Terry, the chair of Universities Australia, quoted Deloitte Access Economics modelling: every $1 invested in research yielded a $5 return for the country’s GDP, and also remarked that, compared to the OECD average of 2.38 per cent, Australia only invested 1.79 per cent of GDP in research and development. Meanwhile, in The Conversation, Susan Forde hammered home the message that ‘If the government listened to business leaders, they would encourage humanities education, not pull funds from it’. But deaf ears are what government today specialises in—unless of course you’re a high-polluting extractor of non-renewable resources who perpetually creates fewer and meaner jobs.
Accordingly, Morrison’s government changed the JobKeeper wage subsidy at least three times to prevent universities from receiving it. National Tertiary Education Union president Alison Barnes was quoted by The Canberra Times on 9 May 2020 as saying, ‘The government appears to have gone out of its way to ensure that universities are unable to access the JobKeeper subsidy, to the point of changing the regulations several times to achieve that outcome’. Certainly, governmental control and corruption are prime ingredients in this horrific confection, not to mention the hatred of the humanities (though not exclusively) as the emblem of heresy-over-God. James Ley summed it all up in The Australian Book Review: ‘The government knows perfectly well that the arts contribute substantially to the economy and that humanities graduates are employable. It doesn’t care. The punitive policies are manifestations of an unappeasable ideology that cannot tolerate anything that escapes its narrow determinations’. Everything must go! as they say at the liquidation sales.
Yet it’s still the case that bread and circuses must never stop—especially not now in the end times, when so many people are forcibly locked down or otherwise holed up. In this regard, the shenanigans of heavily subsidised sporting empires were a sight to behold: mooting private islands for the rugby; realising canned applause for the footy; and enforcing sports rorts for every LNP seat (even if they hadn’t asked for it). But the dystopian science-fictional prospect of superbly fit young gladiators battling it out in solitude on Pacific islands for the delectation of the satellite audience at home…priceless. The self-supporting spectacular recurrent event, endlessly-repeating-with-a-difference, has been—most evidently since the last years of the twentieth century—the conceptual operator for all sorts of otherwise very different kinds of practice. As a very old (and cold) Sigmund Freud remarks in Moses and Monotheism (1939)—part of which was completed in exile after fleeing the Nazis—such celebrations of the sporting body are very often closely associated with reactionary politics.
All these diverse developments are unified by the extraordinary simplicity of the neoliberal drive to cut public investment in all aspects of life—except of course for key electoral seats and major financial sponsors. Richard Cooke wrote of Morrison’s ‘unitary theory of cuts’ that ‘This model holds at the level of the individual, the family, the institution and even the region’. If we take the classical Marxist stance that the state exists to secure capital against the people—and therefore that so-called democracy is rather a form of oligarchic parliamentary capitalism that bills itself as ‘representative’ in a structurally hypocritical fashion—then what government-subsidised media, arts and training institutions are facing now is not so much a mutation as a (disastrous) purification.
One of the familiar paradoxes of capitalism is that it is simultaneously the least and most wasteful economic system imaginable. On the one hand, there is nothing that it does not drill down into in a hyper-divisive fashion in order to extract the maximum surplus from the most minimal matter: there is no bit of the pig that is not mined and treated, this part becoming ice cream, that part glue. On the other hand, there is no system more irreparably wasteful: the staggering amount of food and clothing that are destroyed every year beggars belief. If this drive sometimes expresses itself as an indifferent abandonment to market forces, sometimes as an active assault on residual social forms that continue to mediate between individuals, families and the institutions of the state, the impetus and end remain the same: the total privatisation of all life, not just the life-world. In Australia, this means that very large numbers of people will be put directly out of work and onto the dole queues, that the media, arts and research industries will be severely affected into the foreseeable future and indeed, given their crucial input into the country’s balance sheets, that their plight will likely accelerate a spiral of national economic decline.
We have been slowly boiled like frogs, which twitch too little and late to leap from the pot.
3. No future?
This neoliberal world is a world in which, as Achille Mbembe writes in Critique of Black Reason:
There are no more workers as such. There are only laboring nomads. If yesterday’s drama of the subject was exploitation by capital, the tragedy of the multitude today is that they are unable to be exploited at all. They are abandoned subjects, relegated to the role of a ‘superfluous humanity’. Capital hardly needs them anymore to function.
This was Mbembe speaking before the pandemic struck. What is going to survive of artists, art and the art world after this epochal cataclysm? What new figure or figures of art and the artist—if any—might emerge from this obscure situation?
First, an attempt at big-time business as usual. High-end aesthetic elites will continue to blare their own conservative values, functionally indistinguishable from YBAism. Frances Morris, the director of Tate Modern, while intoning the liturgy that ‘the catastrophic changes looming with climate breakdown have irrevocably moved the baseline of normality’, can at the same time affirm with neoliberal suaveness that ‘we must assert the value of culture’. How so? Because, Morris adds: ‘Tate’s self-generated income, fed by huge numbers of international visitors, significant private funding and sponsorship as well as international partnerships, significantly surpasses the government’s annual grant-in-aid’. Managers will likely still ‘have to make’ ‘regrettable’ cuts to employment at such institutions. Yet even if international visitors forcibly trail off, it looks as though Tate can leverage enough private capital to stay in the game—continuing the trajectory of concentrating power at the top. Expect big shows from big people, reflecting bigly on the catastrophe of the present: absolute expressions of a fusion of visuality, critique, normalisation and waste production.
Second, an attempt at business as usual, but online: art as a derivative data stream. ‘We’re changing it up, but keeping it going’ would be the cheesy mantra here. Yet not only does this second option look like what Marshall McLuhan called ‘rearviewmirrorism’, it betrays its own desperation in the new kinds of emails that artists have already begun to receive from institutions that beg for content provided for little or no money, for the exposure or the LOLs. Here, the real-time interpersonal private tech corporations such as Zoom or the video-sharing service TikTok will be the true winners, insofar as they mediate and remediate online performances, discussions and other events. As Paul Rae noted, ‘Processes of recording and mediation will increasingly be integrated into production for purposes of streaming-standard documentation. This sensibility is also likely to inform the creative process itself’. Enormous numbers of (mainly young) people are already disseminating their performances globally through such platforms; Instagram poets find audiences in the millions; all sorts of communities are generating new and alternative aesthetic practices online. There is enormous creativity here, but are there art and artists? Undoubtedly some will leverage these media events into more traditional institutions, but the question remains: why call this ‘art’ except as a targeted branding exercise in applying an honorific in eclipse?
Third, an accelerated enthusiasm for what is now widely called ‘cancel culture’: the refusal of service, of attention, of nomination, even of livelihood, to those who transgress the laws of good representation. For Guy Rundle, this dissatisfactory moniker indicates a re-uptake of religious and metaphysical constraints concerning graven images, producing what is effectively an ‘anti-aesthetic’. ‘The implicit politics of the present’, Rundle writes in Arena Online, ‘in which the deep left aim of creating a society of universal self-flourishing is rendered as a society of universal “safety”, in an expanded sense—trends towards a ban on representation, since any representation of suffering or wrong can be taken as exploitation or aggression’. But such a dream of public safety is indissociable from its opposite—the reality of privatised personal insecurity—the fact that everyone is scrabbling desperately for purchase in a vertiginously hostile world, knowing that they have precisely become ‘superfluous’ in Mbembe’s sense. This suggests that there are many different projects, both radical and reactionary, confused in the phrase. On the radical side, it isn’t just a question of representations but of the reality of the bodies that bear and support them. Certain kinds of persons, paradigmatically Black and Indigenous, have historically been excluded from representing and representation; to the extent that they have been included, it has been on terms that are not theirs, terms that not only misrepresent but do harm to their objects. Such systems of representation continue to bear the traces of these injustices: on the one hand, they cannot be truly understood by their own dominating inheritors; on the other, they continue to inflict literally untold harm on the marginalised and excluded. So what might appear to the liberal observer to be a puzzling ban on certain (kinds of) representations or curtailment of ‘freedom of speech’ is likely only one moment in the struggle to seize the expropriated means of representation. Not religious but revolutionary traditions—Haitian, Marxist, feminist, decolonising—are among the key precursors, and anti-colonial writer-militants such as Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon remain important models. One of the major challenges facing such orientations is that contemporary data capitalism has effectively seized and privatised the means of communication itself, at almost every scale; in doing so, it has strategically extended processes of surveillance, spamming and scandal to the point that any and all local attempts to forge collective action also have to struggle against the means themselves. Here, the data entrepreneurs are immensely more powerful than any users in their capacities to censor or divert users’ information and its transmission; to pass on details of users and their utterances to the authorities; or to proliferate distractions and misinformation of their own. Such constraints suggest that attempts to generate alternative aesthetics will thereby be limited in scope and transient in their effects.
Fourth, a risky attempt at a ‘rethinking’ what it means to be an artist, and what it means to do art in a period of absolute hostility to its received forms. Pablo Larios gave a blunt take on this in Frieze:
Let’s face it: even before Covid-19, the art world had become shot with hand-wringing and tepid apologies. Even among those professionals most beholden to it, the art business was becoming commonplace to poo-poo: environmentally-taxing plane rides, unethical museum boards, many-tentacled mega-galleries and cookie-cutter biennales in every corner. Don’t get me wrong, I love much about this system: but in its recent form, it was becoming impossible to justify. I’m probably not the only one to wince at profiles of social media managers in newspapers.
The global shock of the pandemic becomes an injunction to cease production along all the old lines, in the name of a refusal to repeat automatically, and in the name of revisiting the value of ‘art’ tout court. Whatever such a rethinking might ultimately involve, it will be difficult for artists to sustain themselves as artists without also participating in one or more of the previous possibilities: after all, an artist still has to live, and if they’re serious about their self-scrutiny, they won’t be being an ‘artist’ except as one in indefinite retreat or suspended animation; they must rethink their relation to received representations and to the privilege and exclusions with which these have been historically bound; and they must then, presumably, do something that they (at least) haven’t done before.
Fifth, forms of total absorption, collapse or abandonment. I have already mentioned the tendencies that subordinate ‘The Arts’ to a generalised entertainment whose paradigm is sports or, alternatively, the new media empires that are Netflix or Disney or Stan. But such forms can also present as a kind of triumph of denialism. As Martin Herbert wrote in a post-ironic diatribe for ArtReview: ‘What if recent art history is not a story of capitulation but of a steady insinuation into the core of late capitalism in order to dismantle it from within?’ The final turn of the waterwheel: the revolution didn’t fail, it is under way; not only is it under way but it is already successful; because it has been successful, it is indiscernible. Under such a description, one might again echo Mbembe: there are no longer artists as such, only creative-industry entrepreneurs, not different in kind but only in scale from any other entrepreneur, whether it’s a local bottle shop spruiking its T-shirts from its website or Elon Musk heading for Mars. No inside to art any more—nor any outside—just precarious hustling for business at the limits of capital’s systemic viability.
This sequence of possibilities—Oligarch’s Showroom, Online Hustling, Political Anti-Aesthetics, Suspended Animation and Total Absorption—is hardly hopeful in itself. (For a funnier and perhaps more hopeful take on the situation from a working artist’s perspective, see UB’s ‘Webtoon From The Field’ in Arena Online.) As I write, another notification pings in; another pop-sci article informs me that the ice is really melting and the seas have not ceased rising. Which returns us to the image of Hirst’s shipwreck with which I began. Indeed, one of the great ancient images for disaster as such is that of shipwreck (for a brilliant account of the history and significance of this image, see Hans Blumenberg’s Shipwreck with Spectator). Even if you survived the wreckage, you would still be lost on unfamiliar shores, without friends, money and support, prey to beasts and pirates, at the mercy of the local populace, and likely to die in misery having never seen your home again. Very few return from such an eventuality, only the exceptionally lucky, talented or forceful: Odysseus or Prospero or Robinson Crusoe or Gulliver, to invoke several fictional personages. But such images of improbable survival also cover over and defend against another great ancient trope that is even more disastrous—that of the Universal Flood.
What is art in the face of such a flood? Mbembe, again:
The central object of artistic creation, and the spirit of its materiality, has always been the critique of life and meditation on what resists death. It is important to clarify that the critique of life is not carried out in the abstract but is rather a meditation on the conditions that make the struggle to live, to stay alive, to survive, in sum, to live a human life, the most important aesthetic—and therefore political—question.
Whatever else it may be, then, art may still be the question; it is certainly still in question. Whatever it will look like in the coming times—if anything—we will have to see…