Issue 3/2006 - Working Poor

The new spirit of artistic capitalism

A conference in London examines the conditions currently shaping artistic criticism and social projects

Monika Vykoukal

The last few decades have seen a growing number of galleries opening in London and being integrated into the entertainment industry with events such as the Turner Prize or the Frieze Art Fair. Against the backdrop of this development, and in conjunction with the recent publication of the first English edition of »The New Spirit of Capitalism« by Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, the annual conference of the London Showroom Gallery is turning its attention to the position of art on the market and in the state. »The New Spirit of Capitalism« is seen here as a tool to analyse the progression from the Thatcher era’s market theory to the instrumentalisation of culture by New Labour and the »crisis« of art identified in the process. This crisis is diagnosed as a kind of self-censorship on the part of those who produce culture as they seek to obtain or keep public funding, as well as by public and private institutions, such as for example »Frieze«, where public funds merge seamlessly with unambiguously commercial undertakings. The idea of the crisis as such is however also the result of the lack of a new discourse that could shed light on these developments in cultural production.
The essential features of the sociological analysis of working conditions in France in the late nineties developed by Boltanski and Chiapello are thus transposed to the London art scene in 2006. As a result, the concept of artistic criticism, which essentially corresponds to the nineteenth century ideal of the artist’s authenticity and autonomy, is equated with criticism of capitalism in contemporary artistic practice. Artistic criticism, as a call for individuality and creativity, is apparently fulfilled in the consumption that is characteristic of the “experience economy”, which leads to the “transformation economy”. In this context the product manifests itself as a change in consumers, who in the process become participants. Consumer culture and artistic criticism share the ideal of unique experiences; the urge for change is an integral demand of critical art just as it is one of the foundations of the transformation economy, to paraphrase Suhail Malik from Goldsmiths College. And the concept of consumption, including consumption of art, refers directly to the state’s definition of art as an instrument of social policy.
The goal of state cultural policy is namely to improve citizens’ quality of life through participation in culture.2 In the study »Culture Vultures«3 from the Conservative-leaning Think Tanks Policy Exchange, editor Munira Mirza joins the ranks of critics of New Labour’s cultural policy, who object to the instrumentalisation of art through »social inclusion« and through projects motivated by an interest in attendance figures. She goes on to demonstrate that political interests motivate evaluations based on data collected to demonstrate that art helps to alleviate various social ills, and shows that the methodology employed is flawed. However, as Mirza herself admits, this type of criticism tends itself to suggest a reactionary distinction between social topics and art and to resort to the notion of the autonomous artwork or art as a formal exploration. Mirza herself is no exception to this general rule when she formulates an opposition between “quality and understanding of art” and social issues.
Whilst Boltanski und Chiapello shed light on the changes arising through capitalism in terms of working conditions with reference to the precarity discourse, Mirza’s interpretation avoids an analysis of work to focus instead on the consumption of cultural events and objects. The work of artists and gallery-owners is expressed pithily in an anecdotal account contributed by Paul Hedge, co-founder of the Hales Gallery in London. He describes a pragmatic attitude rooted in economic necessity, in which efficient management is what counts, not ideologies and manifestoes. The discussion in »The New Spirit of Capitalism« pays just as little attention to the question of how socially committed art is actually instrumentalised by New Labour and how this state of affairs is perpetuated. Potential factors are the power enjoyed –or not – by artists in relative terms, the nature of the transformatory experience and the focus on self-improvement as described by Malik and Mirza, which ultimately constitutes a disciplining measure. A further element that generally plays a role is the requirement for artists as researchers to adopt an objective or even neutral position within a project and not to take sides concerning the respective social issues. As a consequence they do not really participate in the collective social positions of the project context.
» The New Spirit of Capitalism«’s analysis of the construction of value systems and how these change can however help to identify the ideological underpinnings of cultural policy, which are concealed in – seemingly objective – subsidy systems based on sets of specially collected data and can enable a more comprehensive criticism of cultural policy. There is much scope for criticism, which is also the starting point taken by Boltanski and Chiapello in their study. The goals of autonomy and authenticity are not actually implemented, nor are the demands for equality and solidarity which the new spirit associates with social criticism - which is very obvious and banal; just think of the schemes to combat anti-social behaviour or anti-terrorism measures.
The conference as a whole did not consider interventionist or indeed “activist” art outside institutions, which would have revealed illuminating parallels. In an article in the current »Journal of Aesthetics and Protest«, a magazine concentrating on this form of art, US curator and author Nato Thompson criticises the activist art scene.4 He points out that it frequently labours under a misapprehension, as it is engaged in criticism that is only apparently critical, and refers to cultural consumerism that seeks to differentiate itself from the “mainstream” and thus to define its own identity as critical, authentic and autonomous. Thompson emphasises the need to identify material conditions in and beyond consumption as identity, and thus to enable discourses of solidarity as well as critical demands.

The conference »Artist-culture and the spirit of capitalism« was held on 18th March 2006 in the Showroom Gallery London.


Translated by Helen Ferguson


1 German edition: Luc Boltanski & Eve Chiapello, Der neue Geist des Kapitalismus. Constance 2003.
2 This is how I read the subtext of documents like the current report of the Department for Culture Media and Sports. One of the four strategic objectives of the DCMS is for example: “(to) increase and broaden the impact of culture and sport, to enrich individual lives, strengthen communities and improve the places where people live.” C.f.
3 Munira Mirza (ed.), Culture Vultures. Is UK arts policy damaging the arts?
4 Nato Thompson, The Flip Side to the Commodification of Revolution. A Critique of the Activist Scene, in: The Journal for Aesthetics and Protest, Volume 1, Issue 4,