An essay about how late capitalism has absorbed artist processes, and artist lives.
Fantasies of escape
If capitalism’s trajectory over recent decades has taught us anything, it’s that artists must be cautious about their dreams.
Being an artist who wishes fervently for an alternative to the pains of late-capitalism, I have constant visions of a practice outside this system. But too often, as I lean into these visions, I realise that they have already been captured. This socio-economic landscape possesses the cunning to seduce us with images of freedom, but deliver a dark imitation.
When I vision an art practice outside of capitalism, I imagine what it would be like to exit the attention economy, to divorce myself from industry definitions of value, to operate without a sense of competitive survival, and to escape the hamster wheel of constant productivity. In doing so, a particular romantic ideal I fall into into is one of pure process.
My train of thought begins practically. Pure process would mean no grant applications. No demoralising, impersonal rejections. No discrete ‘projects’ rendered bite-sized and consumable to fit into pre-defined exhibition structures and cultural striata. No artworks that are shown once and subsequently discarded. No social and institutional hierarchies to climb. Having experienced burnouts that leave me unable to work for months, to let go of the industry structures and ideologies that define value feels more spacious, secure and liberating. This is where I now operate from as a default, in the knowledge that such structures are part of what led me to abandon myself, and that this was by design. An economy of extraction needs its constant supply, and will never acknowledge that the supply is finite. My general strategy these days is to try and starve it, participating only when it feels important enough.
My friend Emma Wilson argues against the idea that discursive platforms are essential to the existence of any artwork or practice, and is instead interested in live, immediate encounter. She points out how “In most cases, the [art] you have access to - to see, experience, to participate in, to make, to perform in, to think about – has been granted visibility by someone, other than the artists who made it.” (1) In an industry of institutional and digital platforms, artists do not control their own means of production, and their visibility is gatekept by curators who guard their gracious opportunities, establishing what (and who) is valuable through Western canonical notions of artistic quality and opaque assertions of ‘cultural relevance’. However, in my imaginings, rather than being influenced and defined by individual curators and institutions, notions of artistic quality and cultural relevance would be generated and defined according to those making the work and those in proximity who receive it. Maybe institutions and curators are abolished altogether, in favour of working cooperatives of artists. We might instead practise working, thinking, governing and developing community collectively, using critical aesthetic, social and pedagogical frameworks that better distribute power. An economy which is regenerative rather than extractive.
From there, I begin to vision certain utopic scenarios where art is rendered totally fluid, dematerialised and indefinable. A thought of no fetishised, commodifiable ‘projects’ or ‘products’ quickly descends into no ‘thing’. No definitive ‘artworks’ that risk commodification as an inevitable result of their severance from the process of life itself. I imagine that the categories around what art is, and what art is-not, collapse. Writing, performing, sculpting, music, philosophy, research, languaging, moving, custodianship of Country, community development, care work, therapy, activism and magic could occur indistinctly from each other. A generative process that never ends, free from the pressure of outcomes. Our lives are art, and the art is lived.
A few years ago, I visited the Margaret Olley Art Centre at Tweed Regional Gallery. An Australian gem known for her liveliness and generosity, Margaret Olley’s studio was a chaos of colour. It was so messy you could archaeologically excavate it; piled with books, cigarette butts, paint tubes, inspirational objects and fresh flowers. Opening in 2014 after her passing, the Tweed gallery brought in architectural elements from her original studio alongside 75,000 objects from inside it, and painstakingly recreated her workspace to create a “magic cave-like” environment that is now a permanent exhibit. (2) Her process is, itself, an artwork. The studio is positioned as an immersive projection of Olley’s internal landscape; it embodies her creative process and ‘outsider’ subjectivity. I suppose the idea is that by entering the space where the mad and mystical creative process occurred, we can be similarly inspired. You can even take the inspiration home with you, as the gallery shop has developed “an extensive range of merchandise” to “enhance” the exhibit. (3)
At my local gallery shop, there is a book called Artists at Home: Inside the creative spaces of 32 female artists in Australia. Released almost a decade after the opening of the Margaret Olley Art Centre, the publication features portraits of female artists in their studios, alongside “honest, intimate reflection on their career evolutions, motivations and inspirations … amplifying their voices through the intersection of their professional and personal lives.” (4) Rather than the chaos of Olley’s studio, this book sleekly frames a perfectly curated mess on glossy pages. It depicts side tables with mindfully arranged rock collections (unlike Olley’s studio, without any dust), freshly cut herbs in a new basket on a kitchen counter (without any soil), piles of books that don’t disrupt the colour scheme, mood boards with intentional spacing between each pinned element, and works in progress carefully arranged as if they are lounging casually. When I flick through it I wonder about the process of preparing these rooms; curating them. I suppose it is similar to the process of preparing the artists for their accompanying portrait. How do they choose what to wear, how to sit, how to gaze, how to self-display like an artist? What creative brand do the people and their studios embody? I imagine the process to be akin to the way I would spend an hour on my hair in high school to make it look perfectly tousled, like I just got out of bed. It aims to present an authenticity that is distinctly opposed to the self-interested, materialistic conformism of your average capitalist subject. The images in the book communicate similarly. “You could live effortlessly and uncontrived to create this career lifestyle, like me; an aspirational, inspirational, outsider”. The book retails for $59.95, and would be an excellent addition to any coffee table, which you can also curate to signal something about yourself to visitors.
The spectre of artist-led gentrification looms overhead. In his 2002 bestseller The Rise of the Creative Class, researcher and consultant Richard Florida describes a new class of creative people. They are diverse, favour gender equality, and are spiritually oriented. They value self-expression highly to effectively “blend work and lifestyle to construct their identities as creative people”, (5) whilst identifying themselves as “not financially materialistic”. (6) His book templates how making the diverse and artistic presence in a city visible can attract a workforce in tech and business who also aspire to live a creative life, generating a self-pollinating innovation and talent pool to great economic advantage. The city is the platform. It doesn’t matter what kind of creativity is occurring or how radical its message; capitalism has worked out how to siphon profit off vibes alone, and outsiderness of any kind has vibes. They just need to be there, in their life process. The irony, of course, is that this process has priced out those very artists from living in the suburbs and cities they worked so hard to bring to life, in addition to the working class and migrant communities that were the diversity so highly prized in the first place. Fifteen years on, Florida has published what is widely considered a mea culpa. As Jacobin paraphrases, he now seems to recognise how the creative classes “have grabbed hold of many of the world’s great cities and choked them to death”. (7) Nevertheless, the 2019 Creative Brisbane, Creative Economy strategy demonstrates the strength of his legacy with brazen transparency. (8) Creativity should be supported only to foster an attractive, visible lifestyle that can be marketed in service of economic development.
Dovetailing in perfect tandem, legendary record producer Rick Rubin has published a new bestseller, The Creative Act: A Way of Being. A fabric-bound hardcover book with a minimal, zen, circular symbol on the front, the text outlines a series of spiritual, creative concepts that encapsulate how he has “made a practice of helping people transcend their self-imposed expectations in order to reconnect with a state of innocence from which the surprising becomes inevitable”. (9) His ideas stem from the premise that “To be an artist is a way of being in the world. A way of perceiving. … your entire life is a form of self-expression. You exist as a creative being in a creative universe. A singular work of art.” (10) The outcome is never the focus. Neither is a label or category of practice. As he espouses: “Any label you assume before sitting down to create, even one as foundational as a sculptor, rapper, author, or entrepreneur, could be doing more harm than good. Strip away the labels.” (11) In doing so, he promises, we will feel different. Unshackled. A more open conduit for the universal source. This, naturally, is the highest aspiration for the human condition.
This injunction to shed labels is already well-integrated into the collective, evidenced in art scholar Lane Relyea’s observation that “Today [his] painting students, all of them, across the board, don’t say they’re painters. But they also don’t call themselves artists. “I do stuff” is the most frequent response. Or, “I make stuff.” All verb, no predicate. All open-ended adaptability and responsiveness, no set vocation. Ergo, free agents, action-oriented individuals liberated from the confines of labels and titles…” (12) These students are the perfect neoliberal subjects: they are poised porous, unboundaried, ready to shape themselves to the socio-economic conditions and the precarity that is designed into them. If it isn’t working out, the issue is probably mindset. It would never occur to such a subjectivity to ask for more from the system.
For art theorist Josephine Berry, this trend is typified in a phenomenon that has burgeoned since the 1960’s: the building of architectural vantages, windows or walkways in neoliberal arts and cultural institutions, that look onto working artists (or “creatives”) as they go about their studio practice. According to her, capitalism has so fetishised artistic process that artist life has come to be essentialised as creative in itself; a spectacle. In doing so, “Late capitalism … produces the conditions in which artists are now compelled to imitate artistic life.” (13) We are subtly, often subconsciously, presenting and performing ourselves as artists to the wider world.
For her, this phenomenon is situated in a notion of ‘freeing’ art that has underpinned modernist practices since their birth. On the one side, in conceptual practices which aimed to progressively dematerialise the art object through means such as abstraction and the creation of immersive installation environments. On the other, by avant-garde art movements such as Happenings, fluxus and actionism, which endeavored to fuse their art with the everyday and bring it back into the process of life. It is clear to me that these legacies of the Western canon continue to have informed my dreams to a great extent.
I have done enough theatre training understand the implicit changes in presence and subjectivity that come with ‘seeing and being seen’. You put part of yourself away in order to let other parts of yourself beam outwards with intentionality, deliberateness and curation. Your awareness extends to the space and people around watching you. It’s a kind of dissociation. But, in a theatre, it is explicit. I think the same happens to us whether the gaze is coming from an audience in a theatre, from a public looking into a glass studio, from an imagined audience on the other side of a camera lens, from marketers and investors in the city in which you live, or from an internalised self-monitor. No matter how subtle, as you perform, you split yourself.
This is an inherent component of any performance art and a useful survival skill. But, living implicitly in this dissociative state takes a toll, made no less easy by the fact that we lose the ability to tell when we’re doing it. Performing yourself, your ‘authentic’ self, as you go about work and life is muddling; a very deep and self-alienating kind of labour. You can lose who you are, and when the effects begin to be felt in anxiety, depression and burnout, you can blame yourself and contort yourself further in response. An alarming form of ambient, embodied exploitation that runs through the collective, and maps too well onto anticapitalist dreams of dematerialised, uncategorisable process. However, instead of a utopian vision where art is liberated or brought back into non-alienated life, art and life have all been subsumed into capital. Maybe artist dreams ultimately made it easier to do so?
It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the all-encompassing cunning of a system that has found ways to induce and exploit the performance of self. I feel extremely disconcerted when I think about the levels of self-awareness and political literacy that are involved in resisting a paradigm where the modes of production are immaterial, internalised, lifelike, and parade themselves as freedom. In response, I remind myself that, while this paradigm has us buy into a very effective imitation of artist dreams, it is still just that: an imitation. Artists, who engage philosophically with the way things look and feel in the current culture, are uniquely suited to engage in the work of discerning these imitations. We can find aesthetic strategies that draw attention to the gap between what is dreamed and what is received.
Artists are also uniquely positioned to resist this paradigm because we exist on both sides of the equation. While our performances are fetishised by the system, we experience its precarity alongside everyone else whose labour is both life-affirming and economically undervalued (parents, stewards of culture and community, custodians of Country and activists to name a few). We can unsettle the notion that there is something aspirational about the reality of most artist’s lives, and embrace the fact that artistic practices are only as special and enlightened as any of this everyday, creative labour. But, it requires a grappling with the means of our own production, and its broader cultural context. It means grappling with not being special, not being ‘successful’, and not being individual.
And, in a way, I have found it heartening to understand that dematerialising practise, shedding labels, and rendering ourselves pure, responsive potential isn’t necessarily going to deliver us to the creative enlightenment promised. Nor will it protect against commodification (in fact, it can usher it in more completely). The realm of pure process can feel unstable, with fluids being spilled out and too easily siphoned away. There are some containers that create safety, provide guardrails, keep context and ward against drift. There are some labels, like that of ‘artist’, which can have strategic political use. It means I can rest in some of the containers on offer and worry less about that automatically meaning complicity. The paradox, as Berry articulates, is that sometimes you need to define where the work is, so that life can exist as valuable unto itself.
(1) Wilson, E. (2020). ON THE QUESTION OF VALUE. Delving into Dance. https://www.delvingintodance.com/dwords/on-the-question-of-value
(2) Wolff, S. (2014, March 6). Margaret Olley art centre – a crowded house with a big heart. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/australia-culture-blog/2014/mar/06/margaret-olley-art-centre
(3) Gallery Shop. (n.d.). Tweed Regional Gallery and Margaret Olley Art Centre. Retrieved 2 August 2023, from https://gallery.tweed.nsw.gov.au/visit/gallery-shop
(4) Pires, K. (2022). Artists At Home. Karina Pires Creative Director. Retrieved 2 August 2023, from https://www.karinapires.com/artists-at-home
(5) Florida, R. L. (2002). The rise of the creative class: And how it’s transforming work, leisure, community and everyday life. Basic Books. p. 13
(6) Ibid., p. 81
(7) Wetherell, S. (2017, August 19). Richard Florida Is Sorry. https://jacobin.com/2017/08/new-urban-crisis-review-richard-florida
(8) Creative Brisbane Creative Economy Strategy. (2019). Brisbane City Council.
(9) The Creative Act by Rick Rubin: 9780593652886 | PenguinRandomHouse.com: Books. (2023). PenguinRandomhouse.Com. Retrieved 18 October 2023, from https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/717356/the-creative-act-by-rick-rubin/
(10) Rubin, R. (2023). The Creative Act: A Way of Being. Penguin Press. p. 2-3
(11) Ibid., p. 123
(12) Relyea, L. (2013). Your everyday art world. MIT Press. p. 5
(13) Berry, J. (2020). On a Walkway to Hell: Vantages on Art and Life’s Exhaustion. 21: Inquiries into Art, History, the Visual. Beiträge zur Kunstgeschichte und visuellen Kultur. p. 192
Image: Margaret Olley Art Centre, Source: Tweed Regional Gallery
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