Pointing to the avarice of the art world, to its entanglement with big money, is an old game. Concerns about the “corrupting influence” of the market are likely as old as the market itself, and are still voiced with some frequency. Two years ago critic and art world bad boy Dave Hickey apparently gave up the whole thing in disgust, dismissing the entire art world as “stupid and nasty.” More recently David Bryne caused a surprising ripple of ire by describing how the big money of the Chelsea art scene was making it difficult for him to give the work itself a fair viewing. However, the issue of contemporary art’s relationship to capitalism is more complicated and thorny than being merely a matter of the staggering prices demanded at elite galleries.

Some of the issues include, but are not limited to: The increased professionalization of artists through the recent introduction of the MFA degree, the increased importance placed on the name-brand pedigree of such degrees and galleries, the collection of art by major investment banks, the sudden existence of a professional class of arts administrators (consultants, handlers, grant-writers, publicists, “outreach” specialists, educators, fundraisers, journalists, curators) all of whom generally only serve each other while often claiming to serve a public interest, the development of a specialized vocabulary for the discussion of art, the rise in prominence of art fairs modeled on other commercial trade fairs, the evisceration of critical and legible writing about art, the development of glossy trade publications consisting primarily of advertising, the loss of distinction between for-profit and not-for-profit galleries, the colonization of museums by corporate interests, and so on and on and on. Because the “art world” differs so very little from what is more fairly called the “fashion industry,” it is little wonder that so many along with Hickey find it stupid and nasty.

Yet even if these issues could be easily set aside, or at least mitigated by arguing that these are just issues for the elite of Chelsea and do not apply to some other happy pockets of the art world (in Minnesota, Berlin, or even Brooklyn), there is another way in which capitalism’s contemporary operations are very well represented even (perhaps especially) in these zones in which it might seem least apparent. In fact, arguably the eager emerging artists are better representatives of the workings of contemporary capitalism than its usual icons like Donald Trump.

Book cover of The New Spirit of Capitalism by Luc Boltanski, Eve Chiapello, translated by Gregory Elliott © Verso | Amazon
Book cover of The New Spirit of Capitalism by Luc Boltanski, Eve Chiapello, translated by Gregory Elliott © Verso | Amazon

This somewhat audacious claim is rendered intelligible in the context of the theory of contemporary capitalism presented by Boltanski and Chiapello’s New Spirit of Capitalism. Very briefly, one of their key ideas is that we who live in the third age of capitalism now inhabit something they call the “projective city” (in contrast with previous periods justified in reference to the “domestic city” or the “industrial city”). Often in this new world, we no longer simply have straightforward jobs, but instead manage a portfolio of diverse “projects,” involving a wide range of work-like activities within a network of other people. The most successful figures are those who are able to function as a central hub in an extended network, linking together crucial players to collaborate on an ever-expanding range of diverse activities. The key to success today is to be well-connected, to be as much as possible the “who” in the common phrase “it’s who you know,” for this is what enables connections to future projects and maintain, with shark-like necessity, constant motion.

In the Projective City the general standard with respect to which all persons’ and things’ greatness is evaluated is ACTIVITY. … Life is conceived as a series of projects, all the more valuable when different from one another. … What is relevant is to be always pursuing some sort of activity, never to be without a project, without ideas, to be always looking forward to, and preparing for, something along with other persons whose encounter is the result of a being always driven by the impulse of activity. (Luc Boltanski et Eve Chiapello, « Le nouvel esprit du capitalisme », Ed. Gallimard, 1999 – P. 165)

This evolution of capitalism from a more “managerial” model gives rise to certain key “worries” for the authors: first, the instrumentalizing of relationships (such that there is little distinction between a friend and potential business partner); second, the blurring of a meaningful distinction between work and leisure; and third, the increased capacity of capitalism to commodify an ever expanding number of things.

So described, the connection between “emerging” artists and contemporary capitalism isn’t quite so audacious. Reading this book while running a Brooklyn gallery gave me the impression that at times the authors were in fact writing about myself, my friends, and the legions of hungry artists I came in contact with. For really, such artists are in effect budding entrepreneurs, attempting to sell the brands that they have become. They are not only the producers of a product, they are also its primary advertisers, wholesalers, and often retailers. Success on any level depends almost entirely on network performance, the ability to coalesce with others around diverse projects. “Work” involves not only hours in a studio, but also attending openings, going to parties, shaking hands, schmoozing, making Facebook type “friends” who can immediately be put into the service of further project development. All contacts are potential partners on a project, potential platforms for network extension. Being a contemporary artist without giving up the common moral prohibition on instrumentalizing other humans is almost impossible, as contemporary success is defined entirely by a marketplace whose workings utterly require such instrumentalization.

Art opening for "CIRCA 2012" at White Box Gallery, New York © 2008 j-No | Flickr
Art opening for “CIRCA 2012” at White Box Gallery, New York © 2008 j-No | Flickr

This is NOT to say that it isn’t (sometimes) fun! Attending cool parties, meeting cool people, forming plans, collaborating to put on a show — what could be more fun than that? Where’s the “capitalism”?! Surely capitalism is more about the endless acquisition of, well, capital, not merely about collaborating on projects? But that response only makes sense if one takes “capital” exclusively in an economic sense, and thus ignores the importance of social, cultural and symbolic capital described by Bordieu, which is arguably what drives so many in the “creative sector.”

Furthermore, my point is not that the emerging artist is more of a capitalist than Donald Trump, but that she better represents the new spirit, and that the gap between them is not nearly as large as is sometimes supposed. Both are following the same model, or living in the same city, so to speak. This is what makes contemporary capitalism so interesting and so complex, the way in which patterns and techniques typically associated only with the easy target of corporate life now easily blend and blur with life on so many other levels, even in creative areas we might assume to be most opposed to it. Capitalism and anti-capitalism now effectively share the same structure and vocabulary.

The exciting question then becomes for all us (artists or not): How to live in an often stupid and nasty world without ourselves becoming stupid and nasty? Given that artists can no longer realistically maintain any kind of unique status above the fray, so to speak, can artists help us find ways to forge kinder and gentler (or at least smarter and less nasty) ways of inhabiting the projective city?

13 thoughts on “Emerging Artists and the New Spirit of Capitalism

  1. thanks for this illuminating piece on the art world. i wonder, though, given that the new spirit of capitalism is so pervasive in all the spheres of our social life, whether there is something specific to the art world that makes it particularly salient to that field. in many respect, we could for instance say that, with its projective character, contemporary capitalism has realized the dream of a lot of artists, that is: “all power to the imagination”!

    1. Indeed, one central goal of an early avant-garde was the merging of art and life! Without question the general argument is broadly applicable, from dentists to academics. What strikes a nerve for me is the contrast between the artworld’s common self-perception as some sort of “alternative lifestyle” and its de facto lack of alternative. So, if you take my point here, dentists by and large don’t generally present themselves and their work as some sort of alternative, as autonomous, or as a site of critical activity. Artists, particularly emerging artists (though obviously so huge a generalization is difficult), frequently DO see their activity as not merely neutral, but as actively and deliberately different. (Arguably (though I’m now speaking beyond my pay-grade) we have need of such figures, the sense that there are people operating outside the rules, to reassure us and ultimately maintain the status quo – “instrumentalizing the Dionysian” to use some jargon). Still, I’m sometimes optimistic that, because of the sheer fluidity of “art”, it might still be an important site for exploring kinder and gentler modes of exchange, if not revolutionary change.

      1. are you saying that whether they really are an alternative or not, what matters is that at least they contribute to make as think that there is one? it is an interesting thesis, although somewhat controversial i would say…

        1. That is not MY thesis, but it is a thesis that is out there. I cannot now recall where I have seen it recently articulated, but yes, the idea is that artists (as in “artist-types”) give the rest of us some reassurance that a wildly different form of life IS possible beyond our own narrower borders, and that we then exist in the harmonious middle ground. Rather like how tourist literature presents us with the vision that there are places and scenes far removed from our dull workaday world where people only eat coconuts and go kite-surfing, where we are free from capitalistic concerns. My point, (and perhaps B/C’s point) is that such places/people are not so free and alternative as we might think, and in fact might REINFORCE the status quo. BUT, like I said, I don’t want to be as cynical as that, and still see good things in art/artists too!

  2. You raise some interesting point here – I haven’t read The New Spirit of Capitalism but it strikes me that they are discussing this new mode of post industrial capitalism as subsuming leisure into labor. In relation to the artist this is particularly interesting (as you say) – we (theorists) have spent much time arguing and revoking the idea of the artist as either a isolated genius or as a social being who is part of an art world. Now, it is not just the work of art that can be sold but the artists social existence – thinking about social media (how much money does Facebook make from each profile? how much money does youtube make per video upload – through advertising, comments, shares). Anyway, I am not sure whether or not I am making sense or even a point (too much coffee) but I suggest this links somehow to the upcoming digital labor conference (http://digitallabor.org/).

    1. Judging from the website you provide I think you are right – these are not ideas specific to an “art world”. The book is enormous, but worth at least picking through (there is also a shorter essay that preceded the book). Their description of how the “artistic critique” of the 60’s, which demanded authenticity and difference, somehow backfired and ended up giving “capitalism” more things to commodify is particularly interesting to me: “You want authentic experience? No problem, let me sell you some real cheap.”

    1. Thanks, Esprit! I’ve just finished going through this and I think it is excellent – a much more in depth working through of the issues (though I’m a bit mystified by some of Boltanski’s answers?!). Highly recommend!

  3. This is an interesting conversation. Theaster Gates comes to mind in reference to the “activity” and money given to him to advance, read that gentrify, throw money at certain areas of Chicago. In lieu of this recent conversation about the “Projective City” it will be interesting to follow. Oh and it will also be interesting to read the book. Thanks for this.

    1. Gates is certainly an interesting case, and there are loads of lesser known young artists in the NYC area who very intentionally treat their practice as a form of community development/activism, or deliberately take aspects of capitalism as their point of departure (using physical currency, giving away work for free, setting up barters/trades and other forms of exchange, and so forth). Another local artist, Steve Lambert, announced he would give up his prize money if he won a recent competition, because of where the money was coming from. So there ARE some artists who are very much engaged in the tricky self-reflexivity of these issues and who would likely take considerable issue with my sweeping use of the term “artist”. There are many “artworlds”, to be sure. Still, such practices are few and far between, and honestly I think they face another batch of problems (but that’s another article!).

  4. Does art being commodified engage it in the collectivism of capitalism? Can art break free from that hold? It seems art would have to actively rebel against culture/capitalism, I’m not sure many artists are doing that.

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