On art’s relationship to Neoliberalism

Neoliberalism is a word invoked with frequency, but not often correctly. It is interchanged with capitalism or just added onto it as an adjective, it gets confused with libertarianism, and generally, it is just used in a way that has no relationship to its actual meaning. In simple terms, it is the shift from public to private ownership and responsibility over formerly public, government-run services and property including healthcare, community services, schools, housing, etc. Housing is a good example, not only in terms of governments owning buildings for public use but in terms of regulation over rental prices and laws. Neoliberalism is an economic ideology that believes that private interest, governed by the invisible hand of capitalism, is the best regulator and provider of all these services. Rent control gives way to market value; market value is determined by speculation and not inflation much less the current GDP. In the words of former New York mayor Ed Koch, “If you can’t afford to live here, MOVE!”. Neoliberalism entails a complicity and coordination between government and private interest. They grant corporations the rights of a human, and loosen policy to allow business to flourish.

David Harvey has theorized Neoliberalism from a geographic perspective, describing and analyzing how this phenomenon may have local effect and relate to local governments, but it is global in its scope, and constantly on the move. For example, when China opened up its borders to become an economic superpower in the 90s, corporations, enticed by the loosening of governmental regulations and relatively relaxed labor laws. Chinese workers earned very low wages, worked inhumane hours, and had poor living conditions. In our current moment, as the cost of manufacturing in China has become more expensive, due to the increased pressure of local and global activism, corporations are beginning to move elsewhere. This pattern of landing, exploiting to the point where legislations are put in place, increasing cost of production, and then moving will continue only as long as there are places left in the world.

Sociologists like Immanuel Wallerstein, the pioneer of World Systems theory, estimates that when this current system runs out of countries to exploit in this manner, there will be no way to continue the current margin between the cost of production and what has become normal sales prices. A tshirt can cost 8 dollars only when it is made in a sweatshop.

In essence, because of this geographic component, Neoliberalism is a form of economic imperialism, guided by a neo-colonial attitude of superiority (that some should suffer elsewhere for the benefit of those back home). Everyday in the US, we are negotiating our relationship to a neoliberal society. That it is a choice, whether or not to buy the cheap tshirt or a “fair trade” tshirt speaks to problem itself: why are there not regulations ensuring the basic needs and rights of humans? On a more immediate level, this issue is especially pertinent and visible following the last election, when the current elected official activated the large disenfranchised manufacturing class successfully through recognition and false promises. The oft-invoked coal miners whose jobs when elsewhere (in fact, the decreased reliance on coal-power was more of a factor) and needed new jobs were in position where they too needed to keep moving to find income.

In New York City, where the manufacturing industry moved south decades before it left the country, the largely service based economy is hit as well, particularly due to real estate speculation. International investment in luxury condos drives up neighborhood rental rates while the units themselves are often left vacant. Without rent control, long time residents whose neighborhoods suddenly become “trendy” get pushed out and into another location, yet to be transformed. In Chinatown, like in many neighborhoods, landlords are replacing local businesses like groceries with commercial art galleries. Art galleries serve clients of a transnational class, the very same people who buy luxury condos. They can afford to pay higher rents and don’t mind the uneven texture of the pre-gentrified neighborhood. In fact, the neighborhood may even be a boon to galleries who can offer their clients a new experience.

This puts artists in especially difficult situations. Neoliberalism effects the arts in many ways, but the shift from public to free market support for artistic production means that they are more reliant than ever on commercial sales income (as opposed to a more mixed economy of support which would include Federal and private grants coupled with decent jobs in publicly funded institutions in addition to commercial sales or event-based income). When James Cohan Gallery invited Omer Fast to have an exhibition in their Chinatown location on Grand St., naturally, given the political content of his work, he decided to engage the issue of Chinatown as a place in transition. He did so by transforming the front of the gallery into a theater set that imagined a business that may have been in the space prior to gentrification. The hallway, leading into his new work looked like it was between occupants, with stacks of plywood and buckets of paint piled next to a full garbage pail. The two videos he installed, one in the front, theatrical set, and the other in the back room, classical black box, addressed the nature of transition by exploring the well-trodden trope of photography’s relationship to death.

The neighborhood was not amused. Confusing gentrification and racial politics (neoliberalism, while a function of power, does not discriminate), residents called the artist a racist with a colonizer’s gaze for culturally coding the space (he hung two lanterns, had signs in Chinese and English, and also styled the space as slightly worn down). The issue, is in fact neoliberalism, and the response to the work takes, ironically, a neoliberal approach to the solution.

When the government cuts funding to basic community services, either private interest or individuals step in to continue or augment the services. The activists leveling attack at Fast want the gallery to shut down the exhibition. They confuse Fast’s artwork as an “action” (this was the term used in the original critique that set off the protests) and judge it on those terms. As an action, it is not useful. They want the gallery to produce something useful to their cause. Art, by definition (not everyone’s) is useless. It can produce change in society but it is not a function of activism. The division between these spheres is a useful one—activism speaks directly and lists demands, whereas art has license and luxury to speak in a poetic register, to present the world anew, to reveal itself only through time and through the thoughtful dedication of the viewer. Art, in fact, needs the viewer and their thoughtful contemplation and engagement, which co-determines the object.

Fast’s biggest crime was to cover the true nature of the gallery as an outgrowth of the very forces that caused the problem in the first place; the activists biggest crime is to foreclose the space of art in favor of activism, privileging that which is “urgent” over that which is “poetic”–like it or not like it. Neoliberalism espouses a language of constant emergencies, it preoccupies and divides your attention, while exploiting your emotional and economic vulnerabilities in the quest for capital accumulation. A space for slow, thoughtful contemplation is important in light of this situation, but important in general as a value for society. This doesn’t mean that art should not engage with politics. It only means that we should be cautious when we ask for something to be removed instead of using the opportunity to have a conversation and present multiple interpretations.

The critiques by residents of Chinatown are vital and help people who are not affected by this issue to see things from another perspective. They do need to recognize, however, the role which the art object plays in all of this, and not ask that it be thrown out, as it is being leveraged for a cause. This is not about power dynamics within free speech–that certainly exists–it is about a horizon we must maintain while waging struggles. It is possible to point out the latent censorship of an institution by pointing to its lack of diversity while also holding dear the idea that artists have a right to free speech; those ideas are not mutually exclusive.

What the critique points out, once you rinse off the misguided charge of racism, is that the neighborhood understands the white cube to be a wolf in its midst, one of an ever-growing pack; in Fast’s installation, by dressing it up as a Chinese business of yore, unwittingly or not, he dressed the wolf up in sheep’s clothing.