Institutions form the bedrock of all societies. They form the basis for normative power and control. Yet, the traditional divisions between social institutions are being constantly broken down as the boundaries between civic institutions and corporate entities become increasingly blurred under neoliberalism. Charity, once central to the concept of community, is now often left to corporations who appear increasingly desperate to cleanse their images, or to wealthy Twenty-First Century caricatures of Dickens’ “telescopic philanthropists” who use their money to buy themselves fame and perhaps even self-centered “salvation”.1 Meanwhile, centers of contemporary art are built as new temples that replace the role of religion in Western societies. And, in their struggle to make a living, artists and curators can become pawns in the palms of the powerful few who drive the neoliberalization of the arts.
Yet, artists, curators, collectors, critics and art world institutions can also use their privileged positions to challenge outmoded social, political and economic models and call for social change. Collecteurs’ SUBSTANCE 100 list is an attempt to acknowledge the art world figures, the institutions and the activists that have taken steps to try and make our world – our lives – more socially just. Àngels Miralda recently suggested that artists and curators have a duty to rethink and protect the existing institutions of art from imminent “disintegration and decline of public collections” at the hands of rampant privatization manifested in the forms of “new, well-funded private initiatives”.2 Responding to the SUBSTANCE 100 initiative and Miralda’s call, this article seeks to examine how artists and curators could organize collectively to oppose the global march of right-wing and populist politics and the blitzkrieg of privatization. Focusing on the current turbulent situation in the UK – the USA’s partner in neoliberal globalization – it does this by exploring self-organized alternatives rooted in ethical practice, equitable living, commoning, fair pay, openness and hope.
Art has always existed in society. It has been under continuous threat of becoming a medium that only benefits the powerful. It has been used as propaganda, as a trophy of tyrants, and for all sorts of nefarious political ends. Yet its potential can also be channelled in the other direction – as a force for equality and good. And art is now increasingly becoming a tool and a commodity in the service of self-interest, hyper-individualism, greed, and status through the exploitation of every possible resource by a power elite that turns everything into capital – into money and numbers. The religion of neoliberal capitalism is rigorously policed and enforced. And the creative class are its priests, missionaries, and mercenaries. Arts and cultural institutions lead the way to a “creative” economic future in which everyone must be creative or be cast aside. But when creativity becomes compliance, it becomes uncreative creativity: a state of enforced “creativity”. And, as psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott suggests, compliance is “a sick basis for life”. Living creatively, on the other hand, is a healthy state of being.3
Art also functions, alongside military and economic hard power, as a weapon for global soft power. Art, whether publicly funded or privatized, is immersed in neoliberal capital. Artists are cast as the new post-Fordist ideal: self-reliant, precarious, adaptable, creative and, crucially, primarily operating as freelance professionals. For Phillips, “the very performance of precarity either carried out by, or fantasized through, the life of artists” reinforces the neoliberal fetishization of privatization and individual ownership and is therefore at odds with sustainability, collective organizing and relative economic stability.4 Private individuals, artists, and curators are the perfect partners of unbridled privatization. They may attempt to challenge and oppose the systems and structures driving privatization, but to do so is to risk losing everything
“There Is No Alternative”: a Thatcherite mantra still wheeled out to reinforce the walls of neoliberal free market states.5 But surely there are other ways; and other alternatives? These alternatives are not to be found inside or built outside our societies but on the edges – the margins, the peripheries – not just of social spaces but also of institutions. And there is nowhere better to start than in our institutions of art and culture. But when we call for alternatives – for system change, we are told that our demands are impossible: that improving the situation of institutions is too costly and unnecessary; that demanding a fairer, more democratic and socially just society is impractical and utopian. Surely it is the role of artists to be critical, to be utopian – to create new utopias?
Critical utopias stand in opposition to the present culture and against the dominant ideology that controls our cultural, social, political and economic lives – in this case the false utopia of consumerism and neoliberal capitalism. Critical utopias seek to imagine new visions of that which has not yet been realised but which is imminently realisable.6 And, as artists, we can develop new ways of living and being creatively in the world by demanding the impossible. As artists, we must be suspicious of and resistant to the shackles of capital. We must remain autonomous and independent because the privatisation of artists and arts institutions will tie us to the status quo – making us painters of the already possible. We cannot become slaves to capital, reinforcing messages of austerity and cuts and reproducing images of free market private and corporate interests. It is little wonder that artwashing is everywhere today – because we have little or no say about how we make our livings anymore. Artists are ferried from one “meanwhile” space to the next, like thimbles moved around a monopoly board by the almost invisible, grabbing hands of capital. New glass-fronted, corporately sponsored institutions bulldoze their way onto the board, lifting the value of the squares where once no one wanted to land.
Neoliberalism therefore leaves artists and arts institutions with No Alternative. We must resist the corporate and private takeover of the arts. No one else will do it. Those in positions of power tell us it is impossible to roll back privatization and cuts to public funding. This is entirely untrue. Austerity and privatization are ideological decisions that can easily be reversed. As such, what appears to be impossible is eminently possible. And we can go much further than that. We need to demand another impossible: a radically different world from the one we live in today. We must think about both what has and what has not yet been achieved. It is time to visualize futures that go beyond a commodity society and a global economy based upon the exploitation of humans and nature and natural resources. We are living in a deeply inequitable world, incapable of facing up to a climate catastrophe of our own making.
We need to think imaginatively and use our creativity, like those on the SUBSTANCE 100 list, to call for radical action and real social, political, economic and environmental change now. The critical utopias we imagine can create possible futures that cannot be fully articulated because they do not yet exist. We can help to seed our futures with new alternatives and then grow and nurture and protect them. So, we must demand the impossible and we must demand it now! The impossible is possible, but only if we decide to make it so. The possibilities of living creatively and being creative for the positive benefit of people and planet can be imagined together now, if we are serious about equitable participation, participatory democracy, dealing with class and racial and gender oppression, and about the principles of local cultural democracies that understand, as Raymond Williams did, that culture is ordinary: it exists in the everyday; it is everyday life.7 Our everyday creativity and cultures are, after all, what make us human.
We can help to seed our futures with new alternatives and then grow and nurture and protect them. So, we must demand the impossible and we must demand it now! The impossible is possible, but only if we decide to make it so.
So, what are the alternatives to social institutions fettered to a waning yet ever more controlling form of neoliberalism? What are our alternatives? Our alternatives start at home – not inside the other more formal social institutions. Our alternatives start at the margins. And our alternatives start in our hopes and fears and imaginations and dreams – in utopian being and doing. For example, rather than seeking to rebuild, reinforce or reform our existing institutions, perhaps it is time to dismantle them brick-by-brick and ideology-by-ideology. Can we imagine an “uncivic” and “uncivil” world in which art and cultural activities are once again considered as part of being human – a world in which institutions are reimagined, augmented and perhaps (in some cases) replaced by local cultural democracies in which artists and people from every walk of life live together creatively and act for each other’s mutual benefit?
In Cardiff, the capital city of Wales, for example, artists and arts organizations of every size are coalescing around a shared vision of a collective cultural sector in which artists cooperate with local and national government to develop policy which protects them from corporate and private exploitation. Creative Commons Cardiff is a movement which has grown quickly and seeks to ensure that artists facing displacement and organizations threatened with closure are able to not only survive but to be able to put down permanent roots.8 The movement is working with the authorities to be able to have buildings transferred to the collective ownership of artists and institutions, thereby guaranteeing spaces for art for the long-term benefit of communities. It is also working to develop a clear policy in which any loss of cultural buildings or infrastructure as a result of private development is mitigated by a Community Infrastructure Levy which could be used by Creative Commons Cardiff to develop new permanent spaces for artists to use.
Artists are fighting back against the artwashing of private and corporate interests across the UK. For example, artists forced Tate Modern in London to drop sponsorship from oil giant BP.9 They are continuing to press for the city’s National Portrait Gallery and the British Museum to follow suit, as well as other leading UK cultural institutions. Artists also ended sponsorship of the Great Exhibition of the North in Newcastle and Gateshead and the National Festival of Making in Blackburn by weapons manufacturer BAE Systems.10 And artists also brought about the end of sponsorship of the arts in the USA and UK by pharmaceutical giant Sackler.11 Similarly, Yana Peel – CEO of the Serpentine Galleries – was forced to resign after it was revealed that she was co-owner of an Israeli cyberweapons company,12 and activists in New York caused the recent resignation of Warren Kanders from the Whitney Museum’s board.13
After having been involved in some of these campaigns, I am now working with an ex-mining community in County Durham which has been abandoned by the state and private interests alike. The community art project is enabling local people there to create several “micro-utopias” on the site of long-demolished miner’s cottages – land that will hopefully be given to community ownership. The people in the villages are rediscovering the spirit of living and being creatively together and have visions for a sustainable future grown from scattered seeds of self-renewal and fortified by a new community spirit fertilized by trust and self-governance. Many of these people voted for Brexit – for the UK to leave the European Union. Yet, although I fundamentally oppose their decision, we can still work together to collectively reimagine the community and overcome divisions.14
There are numerous examples from elsewhere in the UK and around the world. But it is clear that it is only possible to conceive of dismantling then rebuilding our existing arts and cultural institutions (as well as perhaps some, if not all, of our other social institutions) if we work from the edges whilst recognising we are still part of the neoliberal systems and institutions. This will be a long but necessary process. A carnivalesque process in which we – not them – turn our worlds and our lives upside down in search of renewed senses of hope and new ways of living together on our planet. We need a visionary process involving everyone’s creativity and imaginations. We need to reimagine art as social action; not just as objects of beauty and means of beautification. As Henri Lefebvre pointed out in 1968, “To put art at the service of the urban does not mean to prettify urban space with works of art.” Whereas when the working-class are at the forefront of the political agenda (of which planning is a part), we can “profoundly modify social life and open another era”.15 This is radical change, not the superficial change offered by the Trojan Horse of art in the service of the status quo.
Utopias are possible if we are willing to make them happen. SUBSTANCE 100 celebrates people and institutions that have been courageous enough to try to make change happen. The alternative – a private world without alternatives and with rigid, controlling and controlled social institutions – is a dead place; an uncreative life. Critical utopias are imagined futures that individuals or groups of people firmly believe are worth striving for – possibilities in place of impossibilities. In the case of institutions, it is hardly utopian to expect that they should support communities, offer staff decent rights and salaries, be transparent about how they make decisions and how they are financed, and promote social and environmental justice. But they can go much further than this. For example, the recent work of US-based thinker Doug Borwick sets out a manifesto for effective institutional engagement with communities. He offers a number of suggestions for sensible, easily realisable, yet, for some institutions, substantial changes “in orientation and practices” which he believes (and I agree) are necessary to ensure “the future viability of the industry and the health and vitality of communities” which arts institutions serve.16
As artists and arts institutions, we must understand that we are part of society, not set aside from it. We must stop thinking about ourselves as being somehow above those people in our communities who do not understand our art, our practices and our ways of thinking. We must rethink our practices and ways of living and working so we avoid becoming pawns for the artwashing of gentrification. We must make ethical decisions about sponsorship and patronage. We must bite the hands that feeds us and be able to do so without fear of unfair repercussions for our honesty. We must stand up for our community members who are facing oppression, not stay silent. We must demand decent rights and rates of pay, not just for us, but for our fellow community members. We must call for and use our creativity to support immediate and radical action to save our planet and its people and its incredibly diverse flora and fauna. We must rediscover what we as artists and arts institutions have (at least in some cases) been before: we must be radically creative in our ways of living and being and stand together with our communities to demand equity and democracy for everyone.
We have a duty to ourselves and our fellow humans and our children and their children to change things. It is our duty now, for the future: for all our futures. Artists along with arts and cultural institutions must once again form a vanguard that can replace our present status quo. Collecteurs’ SUBSTANCE 100 initiative understands the importance of that an art world that leads the way in activism; that challenges social, political and economic systems that are not only imposing inequity on many human beings but also destroying our planet; and that offers positive alternatives for how we can live creatively in the future at peace with each other and without harming our planet. The initiative seeks to inspire the art world and influence broader society by enabling new forms of socio-cultural collaborations. It is a way of thinking and being fully human; a way of cooperating and developing new democratic and creative practices; the beginnings of an art world that sees itself as a useful part of social and political life; the start of art as part of mutually beneficial cultural democracies.
These self-organizing, mutually cooperative cultural democracies are (or, more accurately, would be if they existed), of course, new institutional forms – new types of social institutions. Yet their structures are very different: non-hierarchical forms of participatory democracy rather than top-down structures of detached forms of representative democracy. So, let’s make it our duty to make our existing and new institutions bastions for social justice – the institutions of everyday life and of everyone. Let’s make this revolution of everyday life and everyday creativity our duty now for all our futures.