Neoliberalism and the Arts

This is rough draft of a paper I’m writing at the moment. I’m becoming increasingly concerned by the infiltration of arts and culture by neoliberal capitalism. The publication of the Cultural Cities Enquiry and launch of London’s Creative Land Trust this week are, I argue, clear examples of the neoliberalisation and corporate takeover of the arts. This paper attempts to begin to explain how and why neoliberalism has invaded the arts.

White privileged people launch Cultural Cities at the RSA (2019).

NEOLIBERALISM AND THE ARTS

The arts and neoliberalism are perfect bedfellows. Just as the separation of art from everyday life is a product of the capitalist division of labour, the corporate and plutocratic takeover of the arts is inherently linked to neoliberal capitalism. The neoliberalisation of the arts seeks to frame art, creativity and our cultures in strictly economic terms. It seeks to use ‘austerity’ as a means to drive through funding cuts whilst simultaneously encouraging corporate ‘investments’ in arts and culture through sponsorship, philanthropic giving, loans, public private partnerships, etc.

The arts and the ruling elite have always been very close. But now corporate involvement in boards of arts organisations is at record levels. It is common, for example, for directors of property developers, banks, hedge funds, oil companies, and many other corporate entities to be on the boards of arts organisations. Reports such as the recently published Cultural Cities Enquiry (2019) was produced using staff seconded from Virgin Money, led by its CEO Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia, and includes board members such as property developers Tom Bloxham MBE of Urban Splash and Dame Alison Nimmo, CEO of the £13 billion Crown Estate and a director of Berkeley Group. These developers have a reputation for gentrification. Others on the board of the enquiry include Charles Landry, inventor of the term Creative City, and Chair of Arts Council England Sir Nicholas Serota. Little wonder that the report is subtitled ‘Enriching UK cities through smart investment in culture’. Its language is the language of neoliberal capitalism. Serota, it must be remembered, welcomed Rupert Murdoch’s daughter Elizabeth to Arts Council England’s national council in 2017. For me, this represented another strategic move in the corporate takeover of the arts.

The neoliberalisation of the arts began many years ago. For example, Myerscough’s report, The economic importance of the arts in Britain, had, as early as 1988, described the arts, particularly in cities, as being an important driver of employment, wealth, tourism, etc.; going as far as to suggest that the arts civilised and differentiated cities in ways that could lead to competitive advantage (1988). Its influence was long-lasting with, for instance, Selwood praising the text in 2010 as an example of ‘pioneering policy work’ (2010, p. 74).

In 1999, Leadbeater and Oakley argued for the encouragement of local entrepreneurialism in the cultural industries as a means of enabling cities to ‘negotiate a new accommodation with the global market’ (1999, p. 14). The report, entitled The Independents: Britain’s new cultural entrepreneur, unsurprisingly ushered neoliberalism into the arts. This move to overtly enterprise-based arguments was perfectly aligned with the quiet shift from the cultural industries to the creative industries that took place immediately after the election of New Labour in 1997. This shift in emphasis was, for Garnham, ‘a redrawing of [policy responsibility] boundaries’ designed to intentionally redefine ‘the grounds, purposes and instruments of policy’, reflecting the political move from state provision of public services to a market-driven approach (2005, p. 16).

Once arts and culture were corralled inside the creative industries enclosure, they were quickly subjected to the by now de facto New Public Management system which sought to turn spending on essential public services into investing in enterprising business-like entities ripe for privatisation. This approach also led to the hyperinstrumentalisation of arts and culture in which cultural policy became a non-cultural policy: effectively providing ‘a means to a non-cultural end’ (Hadley & Gray, 2017, p. 96). The change of terminology from cultural to creative industries is, Garnham argues, linked to the market-driven policy objectives and to the rising influence of information technologies – the rise of the ‘information society’ (2005, p. 20). Further, it emanates from the Schumpeterian notion that market stagnation could only be avoided by ‘competition in innovation’ which would constantly generate new markets for new products, processes and knowledge (Garnham, 2005, pp. 21-2). In short, the turn to the creative industries reflects a turn to Schumpeter’s entrepreneurial ideal. And the turn to innovation and enterprise lies at the core of neoliberalism.

This hyperinstrumentalism can also be considered as the natural facilitator in the recent shift in approach to implementing the neoliberal ideology. According to Peck, this shift occurred around the time of the 2008 financial crisis. Neoliberalism adapted to the crisis, moving from a policy of ‘roll-back neoliberalization’ to one of ‘roll-out neoliberalization’ (Peck, 2011). This adaptation had a significant impact on the way neoliberalism was administered and therefore on the arts and cultural sector. Crucially, the destructive march towards decentralisation was subverted, replaced instead by a ‘creative and re-regulatory moment’ (Peck, 2011).

I argue that this Schumpetarian swing from neoliberalism as destructive to creative afforded the creative industries the opportunity to dominate arts and culture; that it was the perfect vehicle for roll-out neoliberalisation. It led to policy changes that required a different language – a more ‘creative’, civic-minded language: a language that re-found social capital as the perfect foil for a reinvented ‘creative’ and (nominally ‘social’) form of neoliberalism. For Peck, the language change manifests itself in the shifts from ‘privatization to public-private partnership’, from ‘structural adjustment’ to ‘good governance’, ‘dogmatic deregulation’ to ‘light-touch regulation’, ‘greed-is-good’ to ‘markets-with-morals’, ‘budget cuts’ to ‘management-by-audit’, ‘welfare retrenchment’ to ‘active social policy’, and from ‘conviction politics’ to ‘best practice’ (2011).

This adaptation of neoliberal policy is as much about terminology as it is about systemic change. It is subtle and nuanced. The arts and culture (now firmly entrenched within the creative industries) did what they have always done and adapted their language in line with central government policy objectives. Roll-out neoliberalisation led to a practice of ‘fast-policy’ and the rise of a new form of technocracy based upon the principle that global best practices always work best and that their efficacies are best measured scientifically (Peck, 2011).


Nevertheless, roll-out neoliberalism has not replaced roll-back neoliberalisation. Rather the two processes coexist and are variously employed by government in response to changes in political perspectives. It is important to understand that both these processes are inherently linked to left- and right-wing notions of localism (Featherstone, et al., 2012, p. 178). In both cases, enterprise culture was effectively given a social and creative facelift, with the cultural industries being acknowledged as a perfect vehicle with which to promote neoliberalisation in its ‘innovative’ roll-out and ‘destructive’ roll-back forms. To weather the storm caused by the 2008 financial crisis, neoliberalism rediscovered Schumpeter’s Gale and arts and culture – now wedded to IT and the ‘digital’ – quickly tacked into the ensuing wind and plotted a new course.

Neoliberalism uses language to great effect, and clearly the language of neoliberalism and thereby of globalism and localism is English. It has been argued that the expansion of the English language serves to naturalise neoliberal socio-economic policy globally (Piller & Cho, 2013). Similarly, I argue that arts and culture – that the artworld – serves to promote the ideology of neoliberalism globally and locally. For Rule and Levine, the contemporary art world has constructed its own, global language – ‘International Art English’ (IAE) (2012).[1] This is the phenomenon of ‘Art Speak’ – a version of the English language that is ‘not English’ but takes from art theory, critical theory and other sources then commodifies them, thereby incorporating them into the neoliberal lexicon of not only the artworld but beyond and into capitalism more generally.

International Art English is ‘a nonlocal language’ – a global language (Rule & Levine, 2012). The fusion of postmodernism, positivist science, roll-out neoliberal socio-economic policies, technocratic governance and the creative industries has stripped many words of their original meanings, leaving them like empty shells – as mere signifiers. Values are reduced to market values; meanings are only meaningful when equated to economic outcomes. The autonomy of art serves to veil the neoliberal ideology of free trade (Stallabrass, 2007). Art (particularly in its recent creative industries reincarnation) has entered into a Faustian pact with neoliberalism, gaining power and influence but only by becoming entirely incorporated into market economics, entrepreneurialism, commodification and consumerism.

Just look at this film introducing London’s Creative Land Trust (2019):

The ‘long march of the Neo-Liberal Revolution’ warrants the naming of neoliberalism as an unsatisfactory yet ‘politically necessary’ act of resistance, unsatisfactory not least because neoliberalism is not a single entity but rather takes many forms (Hall, 2011, pp. 706-8). Because neoliberalism is an ideology – a constantly shifting ideology that thrives on appropriation, discourse is essential to its marriage of seemingly contradictory elements such as Thatcher’s combination of ‘“free-market”’ and ‘“strong state”’ (Hall, 2011, p. 713).

Blair’s New Labour form of neoliberalism proved an exemplar in the appropriation of language to promote its ideological project through its intensive use of what became known as ‘spin’. ‘Old’ Labour became ‘New’ Labour. The language was one of ‘reform’, ‘modernization’, ‘managerial marketization’ and, ultimately, ‘liberal “authoritarianism”’ (Hall, 2011, pp. 714-5). Crucially, New Labour open the door for the wholesale privatisation of the public sector – not only in terms of actual privatisation of services but, even more perniciously, in terms of the adoption of private-sector management as the default mode of operating public services. It also ushered in, alongside the US, a policy of ‘global governance’ designed to install neoliberal capitalism worldwide using a combination of both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power (Hall, 2011, p. 716).

Whilst increasingly inconsistent and idiosyncratic, the subsequent UK coalition government and the Conservative minority governments which followed have largely continued New Labour’s neoliberal authoritarianism. However, they also rekindled the Schumpeterian maxim that ‘there is no alternative to “creative destruction” (Hall, 2011, p. 719). Neoliberalism is in crisis, but it seems that it thrives by creating crises.[2] And the creative industries that emerged from Blairite Britain have emerged from the crisis and are now often dubbed, particularly in the digital and AI forms, global ‘disruptors’ which will drive a new ‘creative’ economic boom (World Economic Forum, 2018).

Take a dive inside the World Economic Forum’s vision here:

The term ‘creative industries’ therefore represents the fusion of neoliberalism with arts and cultural policy and, as such, cannot but reproduce and endorse the exploitation and inequalities inherent within neoliberalism (Hesmondhalgh, 2008, p. 567). In other words, as a neoliberal entity, the creative industries are not only ‘creative’, they are also ‘destructive’. For Harvey:

Neoliberalization has swept across the world like a vast tidal wave of institutional reform and discursive adjustment, entailing much destruction, not only of prior institutional frame- works and powers, but also of divisions of labor, social relations, welfare provisions, technological mixes, ways of life, attachments to the land, habits of the heart, ways of thought, and the like (Harvey, 2006, p. 145).

Neoliberalism has not only become a hegemonic political economic practice, it has also become a hegemonic ‘mode of discourse’ that has altered how we act and think about everything, everywhere; it is the new common-sense – ‘taken for granted and beyond question’ (Harvey, 2006, pp. 145-6). The creative industries reflects the application of neoliberal hegemony to arts and cultural policy. It is therefore essential that arts and cultural policy and the institutions operating under this policy to understand what is accepts as common sense, what it takes for granted and what it does not question. Neoliberalism is a master of employing rhetoric; a master of deceit. What appears to be about ‘freedom’ is, in fact, ‘anti-democratic’, and what seems to be promoting ‘equality’ instead restores and entrenches ‘class power’ (Harvey, 2006, pp. 157-8).

Neoliberalism has, since its inception, been global and multidisciplinary in nature (Plehwe & Mills, 2012). Today, its worldview is part of our everyday lives (Mirowski, 2013, p. 28). Language and ideology overlap and influence each other to such an extent that it is often difficult to distinguish them and, ‘Repeated from the lofty heights of the media and positions of power, these ideological representations can acquire the status of natural truths and common sense’ (Holborow, 2007, p. 53).

Yet it is clear that the UK arts and cultural sector (aka the creative industries) is wedded to neoliberalism to the point that it has become a core element of future economic modelling. Whilst many in the sector will clap their hands, the cost of accepting the neoliberalisation of the arts is high. It is increasingly clear that forms of creativity accepted, endorsed and sponsored by the neoliberal elite will thrive, appropriation of radically political alternatives will increase, and there will be little or no room for any artists who refuse to be led by the corporate hand or set sail on Schumpter’s Gale.

[1] For Rule and Levine, International Art English ‘has a distinctive lexicon: aporia, radically, space, proposition, biopolitical, tension, transversal, autonomy. An artist’s work inevitably interrogates, questions, encodes, transforms, subverts, imbricates, displaces - though often it doesn’t do these things so much as it serves to, functions to, or seems to (or might seem to) do these things. IAE rebukes English for its lack of nouns: Visual becomes visuality, global becomes globality, potential becomes potentiality, experience becomes … experiencability (2012).

[2] For instance, Harvey argues that ‘Crisis creation, management and manipulation on the world stage has evolved into the fine art of deliberative redistribution of wealth from poor countries to the rich’ (2006, p. 154).

REFERENCES

Featherstone, D. et al., 2012. Progressive localism and the construction of political alternatives. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Issue 37, pp. 177-182.

Garnham, N., 2005. From cultural to creative industries. International Journal of Cultural Policy, 11(1), pp. 15-29.

Hadley, S. & Gray, C., 2017. Hyperinstrumentalism and cultural policy: means to an end or an end to meaning?. Cultural Trends, 26(2), pp. 95-106.

Hall, S., 2011. THE NEO-LIBERAL REVOLUTION. Cultural Studies, 25(6), pp. 705-728.

Harvey, D., 2006. Neo-Liberalism as Creative Destruction. Geografiska Annaler. Series B, Human Geography, 88(2), pp. 145-158 .

Hesmondhalgh, D. J., 2008. Cultural and Creative Industries. In: J. Frow & T. Bennett, eds. The SAGE handbook of cultural analysis. London: Sage, pp. 553-569.

Holborow, M., 2007. Language, ideology and neoliberalism. Journal of Language and Politics, 6(1), pp. 51-73.

Leadbeater, C. & Oakley, K., 1999. The Independents: Britain's new cultural entrepreneur, London: Demos.

Mirowski, P., 2013. Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown. London: Verso.

Myerscough, J., 1988. The economic importance of the arts in Britain, London: Policy Studies Institute.

Peck, J., 2011. Social innovation … at the limits of neoliberalism, Vancouver: University of British Columbia.

Piller, I. & Cho, J., 2013. Neoliberalism as language policy. Language in Society, 42(1), pp. 23-44.

Plehwe, D. & Mills, T., 2012. Defending Capitalism: The Rise of the Neoliberal Thought Collective (Part 1). [Online]
Available at: http://www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/defending_capitalism_the_rise_of_the_neoliberal_thought_collective_part_1
[Accessed 1st June 2018].

Rule, A. & Levine, D., 2012. International Art English. [Online]
Available at: https://www.canopycanopycanopy.com/contents/international_art_english
[Accessed 25th May 2018].

Selwood, S., 2010. Review Essay: The economic importance of the arts in Britain. International Journal of Cultural Policy, 16(1), pp. 74-75.

Stallabrass, J., 2007. Contemporary Art in a Neoliberal Climate. [Online]
Available at: http://www.worldofart.org/aktualno/archives/131
[Accessed 25th May 2018].

World Economic Forum, 2018. Creative Disruption: The impact of emerging technologies on the creative economy. [Online]
Available at: https://www.weforum.org/whitepapers/creative-disruption-the-impact-of-emerging-technologies-on-the-creative-economy
[Accessed 8th February 2019].