State Of The Art: Is Art Neo-Liberalism In It’s Purest Form?


In the Live Art performance Cakehole, artist Tom Estes expresses his acute preoccupation with the social and economic changes taking place in this new age of unemployment and of automation. The performance sets out to transform these observations and anxieties into comedy. Wearing a robotic mask as a symbolic juxtaposition of human with machine, Estes presents an updated commentary on labour in the economic and social upheavals of 21st century society.

Michael J. Lewis’s essay on the the demise of art-as-culture, was published this July in Commentary magazine Titled “How Art Became Irrelevant: A chronological survey of the demise of art,” the essay’s central claim is that “while the fine arts can survive a hostile or ignorant public, or even a fanatically prudish one, they cannot long survive an indifferent one. And that is the nature of the present Western response to art, visual and otherwise: indifference.

In the 1960s and ’70s, politicization meant taking a position, establishing and following a political program, taking up armed struggle, putting one’s skills (including art) at the service of the revolution, fighting in the name of the horizon of state socialism, and acting in solidarity with anti-imperialist and decolonization struggles. Artists and militant networks were drawn together by political affinities, and Palestine, Vietnam, and Chile were symbols of anti-imperialism. This form of politicization translated into an aesthetic practice of international vanguardism, contestation, criticality, counterhegemony, and postcolonial memorialization and assertion, within the framework of a politics of representation. Since that time, however, this kind of politics has come to be perceived as a form of violent nationalism that led to authoritarian states and propagandist aesthetics. Politics has become inseparable from the neoliberalized political economy, as well as from culture. This is in part, of course, due to the whitewashing of Capitalist violence through military intervention and underplaying of the role of economic disparity as a form of violence.  Neoliberalism, ideology celebrates itself as the epiteme of ‘freedom’ through free market competition while a mainstream corporate controlled media works around the clock to secure vested interests with a barrage of rhetoric ignoring any of the drawbacks and silences any criticism.

In her 1968 essay “The Crisis in Culture,” Hannah Arendt argued that true art had no purpose and is useless and therefore not a part of political action. According to Arendt, art and politics are two separate spheres, since political action or “speaking out” necessarily implies means or ends, while art is autonomous and needs no justification. When art has political aims, it becomes propaganda (for example, socialist realism under Stalin’s regime). For Arendt, what art and politics have in common is that both are “carried out”—to use a term posterior to Arendt—in the public sphere. With the advent of industrialized culture, however, once mass society became interested in cultural values and began to monopolize culture for its own ends, transforming cultural values into exchangeable values, a fusion between art and politics occurred in the greater cultural sphere. From this moment on, modernism’s political project of transforming the world by means of criticism, subversion, transgression, transformation, and negativity took its place within postmodernism at the very center of society.

Artists’ voices are thought to be important in giving shape to society, and art is considered to be useful.  But could it be that contemporary art is neo-liberalism in its purest form?

When considering the relationship between contemporary art and politics, it is simply assumed that art, in one way or another, can serve as a catalyst for political action or participation, as it can reveal capitalism’s “hidden” contradictions. It is clear that the state of contemporary art today is quite different from what gave rise to institutional critique in the 1970s, which was focused on examining the subjection of art to ideological interests. What you have now then is the marketing of racialized identities as tools for consumption. And certain racialized bodies and images are associated with hipness, coolness, edginess. So all kinds of youth all over the world are appropriating that style as a way of, sort of, countering authority, stating their rebelliousness, and wanting to be seen as significant.

The production of contemporary art, as Brian Kuan Wood and Anton Vidokle pointed out, has been foreclosed by a network of protocols dictating the forms and means of production of art circulating in exhibitions, galleries, biennials, and fairs. And while artists may address exhibition politics  as a theme in their work, they are limited in terms of producing something outside of the consensual barriers placed on exhibition politics. This is due to the existence of a systemic enclosure which extends well beyond the consensus of the art world: art is fused with political sensibilities that exploit art’s diplomatic potential, as these political sensibilities consider culture to be a form of social capital, a resource. Thus, a lot of money is put into play.

Within representation’s ruin, what used to be “outside” of capitalism—like marginality, queerness, or race—has been symbolically incorporated and deprived of its capacity to disrupt and contest. Figures of otherness have disappeared and been subsumed into “lifestyle” options. The underclass is a blurry horizon disconnected from the flows of global capitalism; far from being a political figure, the underclass is sometimes subject to site-specific intervention, pacification, betterment, development, and community-building projects. Its emancipatory horizon lies in entrepreneurship. Moreover, in the twenty-first century politics is no longer representative, but what some theorists call “post-politics.” Following Jodi Dean, this means that politics now aspires to a superficial democracy that neutralizes antagonism and denies democracy’s limits and mechanisms of exclusion. “Post-politics” thus implies the disavowal of the fundamental division conditioning politics, as equality has come to mean inclusion, respect, and entitlement. “Post-politics” means consensual politics, the end of ideology, the neoliberal withering away of the state in some areas and its strengthening in other strategic ones, and the financialization of the economy. Under these conditions, is there any room left for politically committed art?

Unlike forty years ago, institutions today are more opaque, more exclusive, and they share objectives intrinsically linked to corporate, neoliberal agendas (to the point that those agendas have become invisible). Cultural institutions are the administrative organs of the dominant order, and cultural producers actively contribute to the transmission of free market ideology across all aspects of our lives.


In Estes’ work Cake Hole, the simple but repetitive act of cutting holes in donuts is based on a slang term in activist circles meaning ‘to do something that has little or no real impact’. The title of the work is also from a slang term that refers to the mouth. Generally expressed as ‘shut your cakehole’ which means ‘shut up and keep your opinions to yourself’.

Aas Michael J. Lewis states: “In terms of quantifiable data—prices spent on paintings and photographs and sculptures, visitors accommodated and funds raised and square footage created at museums—the picture could hardly be rosier… Equally robust is the art market, to judge by a Christie’s auction on May 11 that set several records, including the highest price ever paid at auction for a work of art: $179.4 million, paid by an anonymous bidder, for Picasso’s Women of Algiers (Version O). One can expect more such record-breaking in the next few years as the art market is increasingly roiled by Hong Kong dollars, Swiss francs, and Qatari riyals. (The buyer of the Picasso was subsequently revealed to be the former prime minister of Qatar.)”

Being “contemporary,” art exists in the same temporal space as culture and has therefore been integrated into it. Culture is the social process through which we communicate meaning in order to understand the world, build identities, and define our values and beliefs. In the late 1990s, theorist Fredric Jameson argued that the social space was completely saturated with the image of culture.This is because in our professional and daily activities, as well as in the various forms of entertainment we enjoy, society consumes cultural products all the time. This characterizes the postmodern “cultural turn” diagnosed by Jameson, which was further elaborated by George Yúdice upon observing (in 2003) that the uses of culture had undergone an unprecedented expansion not just in the marketplace but also along social, political, and economic lines. According to Yúdice, since the states and corporations already utilize culture as a tool as they search for economic and sociopolitical betterment—for instance,in peacefully resolving violence and crime, reconstructing the social fabric, transforming society, creating jobs, increasing civic participation, and so forth—culture has become a resource.

Moreover, the state, the private sector and society attribute to art a decisive political role as on the one hand, they invest in culture with the purpose generating political and economic surplus value. On the other hand, art and cultural practices are now part of the same network of strategies and questions as social movements are (this space is known as the “Infosphere”). In a context in which the creative, political, and mediatic fields are intrinsically linked, contemporary cultural practices point toward a new social order in which art has merged with life, privileging lived experience, collective communication and performative politics.


Estes’ performance work is reminiscent of the futuristic German expressionist film Metropolis of 1927, in which wealthy industrialists rule over a vast city from high-rise tower complexes, while a lower class of underground-dwelling workers toil constantly to operate the machines that provide its power. Poverty, unemployment, strikes and strike breakers, political intolerance, economic inequalities and the tyranny of the machine, were in the past something experienced mainly by a menial working class in the industrial age of the mass production. Estes’ choice of a mask of a protocol droid (C3PO from Star Wars) suggests the white middle class taking on a different role with the slow disappearance of white-collar professions. The positioning of the performance within an art gallery context stands as a commentary on the hierarchy within the artword itself and the danger of the dehumanizing influence of an age of unbridled mechanization within a society based on obscene wealth disparity. But the work also addresses the hardships of all the underprivileged and of human survival in a world only just emerging from the industrialization of the 20th century. In this new world of neo-liberalism productivity and consumption define human value but deny any real representation or meaningful voice .

In turn, the commodification of culture and its use as a resource—as well as the fusion of art, politics, and media—have had a significant impact in the way in which capitalist economies operate. A  consequence has been the predominance of immaterial or cognitive labor over industrial production. Not  to say that industrial production has ceased to exist, on the contrary, it has increased more than ever and for the most part it has been transferred to third-world countries. The prevalence of cognitive or immaterial work in contemporary capitalism implies that the main source of surplus value is the production and dissemination of signs. In other words,“creative’ work” has been injected to all areas of economic life. Immaterial labor also means the production of social life as lifestyles,  and forms of life—a new form of the common at the center of which culture is located.

“Silence is expansive, filling up a whole room in seconds, like a balloon filled with awkwardness. It’s amazing how saying nothing can be so different from having nothing to say.”  Jarod Kintz

The relationship between the cultural and political spheres (that is, the instrumentalization of culture in the name of politics) is nothing new. Yet according to Yúdice, UNESCO’s cultural projects, globalized civil society, governments, NGOs, the market, cultural managers, and those who work in cultural and creative industries have brought about an unprecedented transformation in our understanding of culture and what we do on its behalf.12 This transformation brings up a well-worn contradiction between the trivialization of cultural products to serve the mass consumer market, which is seen as something negative, and the process of cultural democratization, which is seen as something positive. In transcending this contradiction, explicating why art (subsumed to the demands of the cultural and creative industries, subsidized by the state, market, and corporations) is considered a privileged field of politicization and even an integral part of political action and voice when it comes to anti-hegemonic practices. What are the implications of this for committed, autonomous art?

To reflect upon the presence of the political against the backdrop of contingent aesthetic, social, and economic factors there is a need for a new, completely different political design that asks, “What has to be done?” Rather than a call for a telos or a proclamation seeking to promote a more empirical relationship to the presence of the political—one embedded in the genealogies of ongoing social struggles and postidentitarian subjectivity—perhaps we need to ask instead, “What has been done already? And how do we go on?”

The Society of the Spectacle (French: La Société du spectacle) is a 1967 work of philosophy and Marxist critical theory by Guy Debord. In this important text for the Situationist movement, Debord traces the development of a modern society in which authentic social life has been replaced with its representation: “All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.”Debord argues that the history of social life can be understood as “the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing.”This condition, according to Debord, is the “historical moment at which the commodity completes its colonization of social life.”

The spectacle is the inverted image of society in which relations between commodities have supplanted relations between people, in which “passive identification with the spectacle supplants genuine activity”. “The spectacle is not a collection of images,” Debord writes, “rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.”

In his analysis of the spectacular society, Debord notes that quality of life is impoverished, with such lack of authenticity, human perceptions are affected, and there’s also a degradation of knowledge, with the hindering of critical thought. Debord analyzes the use of knowledge to assuage reality: the spectacle obfuscates the past, imploding it with the future into an undifferentiated mass, a type of never-ending present; in this way the spectacle prevents individuals from realizing that the society of spectacle is only a moment in history, one that can be overturned through revolution.


People who witness the performance first hand are asked to interact by taking pictures on what Estes call a “communal camera”. So rather than being some kind of privileged, passive  audience, those who witness the event in real time and space become actively involved. The pictures are then posted on social networking sites for another, wider on-line audience.

Estes refers to this as “Harvesting The Hive” in which the underclass is sometimes subject to site-specific intervention, pacification, betterment, development, and community-building projects. The underclass is a blurry horizon disconnected from the flows of global capitalism and far from being a political figure, its emancipatory horizon lies in entrepreneurship. 

While Lewis does get some fair shots in about vapid works of spectacle, the essay ignores both the artists who have been historically marginalized from such spaces and the artists who are taking their practices outside of them- or critiquing them from within. Therefore, a genuinely radical approach within the field of art means going beyond politically correct art—art that’s satisfied with the system of galleries, grants, and markets, and with serving as a Neo-liberal government’s official showcase. Recent exhibitions and biennials have addressed questions that are perceived to be “political,” for example: labor, poverty, exploitation, violence, globalization, war, and exclusion. “Any image of society depends on the perspective one takes, and the perspective one takes influences what one sees,” summarizes Antke Engel in her revision of the writings of J. K. Gibson-Graham. While the present is dark and opaque, art is given the task of teaching us how to see or perceive things in a different way—it is considered to be training, an act of observation or exegesis. But could politicized art, as Hito Steyerl argues, focuses not on what it shows but on what art does and how it does it? In today’s art world art does not need to be political to promote neo-liberalism The entire system itself fulfills neo-liberal aims and objectives. To paraphrase Jean-Luc Godard, it’s not a question of making political art or film; it’s about making art or film politically.

Standing in the shade brought together a selection of works discussing aura and affect. It dealt with ephemeral encounters in a contemporary climate dominated by reproduced images. Interrogating the lived experience of the artwork – a shade blown from beneath the trees – this exhibition invites us to re-consider our positions as viewers of art today.

Standing in the shade opened with a private view from 6-9pm on Thursday, 14th January and remained open 15th-24th January 2016, Wednesday through Sunday from 11am to 6pm at Mile End Art Pavilion, Mile End Park, Clinton Rd, London E3 4












About Art Selectronic

Art Selectronic is an artist-led initiative, that supports grass-roots contemporary art that remains unswayed by fashion, trends or the whims of government funding. The project involves ongoing research into the placing of contemporary art, it’s audiences and it’s relationship to the everyday. We place great emphasis on context. Our mission is to support new works of contemporary art and foster an audience from a wide range of backgrounds.
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