Adding Colors to the Chameleon

By Ben Eastham
  • Ben Eastham
    Ben Eastham is co-founder and editor of The White Review, a journal on the arts and literature published in print and online. His writing has featured in publications including the Art Newspaper, New York Times, The London Review of Books, Financial Times, Times Literary Supplement, Elephant, and Illuminations: the 54th Venice Biennale. He is the co-author, with Katya Tylevich, of My Life as a Work of Art, due out in 2016 with Laurence King.

The incumbent British government has embarked on a mission to reduce, marketize, and ultimately privatize those sectors of society currently administered or subsidized by the state. This is nothing new: for the past forty years, the Conservative Party has been closely aligned to, indeed a driving force behind, a neoliberal consensus in Anglo-American economic affairs, an ideology built upon the dismantlement of the state apparatus in order to make space for the free operation of the market. Having gained an outright majority in the general election of last year standing on this platform, the government has a mandate to realize the policy on the terms outlined in the course of its campaign.

Yet recent, popular expressions of anger at the changes wrought upon higher education, welfare, and particularly the NHS (National Health Service) make it clear that the British public’s interpretation of what constitutes the proper sphere of implementation for these actions is not shared by the government it has elected. This gap between the public’s expectation of what it is voting for and what that vote entails has, I would suggest, been engineered by a delicate sleight of hand on the part of the government.

This consists of a semantic fudge—a deliberate conflation of what we mean by the economy and what we mean by society—that the Conservative Party has exploited expertly in the course of its modern history. The gradual expansion of the proper realm for the application of free-market economics to include every part of the human community is dependent upon a rhetorical strategy that is now being applied to the provision of funding for the arts, and which deserves our attention because it has as its aim the suppression of dissent.

The approach is marked by what seems initially like a remarkable failure of logic, according to which the government relentlessly praises the contribution of the creative industries and humanities to the British economy while systematically undermining them. In 2010, when the Conservatives first came to power as part of a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Arts Council England—the country’s major funding body—saw its budget cut by 29.6 percent. Earlier that year David Cameron had written an open letter to The Sun in which he made clear his wholehearted support for the arts, arguing that “British culture is second to none.” To drive home his point he cited J. K. Rowling (a single mother who wrote the first of her Harry Potter novels while on benefits, she has been among the most vocal critics of government policy on welfare), “huge BBC exports” (the Conservative Party is notoriously hostile to the BBC), and various tat comedies that served to “remind [him] of one of the best things about our country—we love to laugh at ourselves.”

The love bombing continued, without reciprocation (senior BBC news presenters twice on one day suffered “slips of the tongue” that confused the then culture secretary Jeremy Hunt’s surname with a vulgar term for female genitalia). Meanwhile, Conservative members of parliament continued to draw attention to the strength of a cultural sector it seemed determined to diminish. In its manifesto for the 2015 general election, the party stated that: “our museums are second to none. In music, art, fashion, theatre, design, film, television and the performing arts, we have an edge.” Beyond the positive words, the manifesto provided hard evidence for the party’s steadfast commitment to arts and culture: “The creative industries have become our fastest-growing economic sector, contributing nearly £77 billion to the UK economy.”

Indeed, while making his first autumn statement after the Conservatives’ election victory, Chancellor George Osborne argued that “one of the best investments we can make as a nation is in our extraordinary arts, museums, heritage, media and sport.” 1In December 2015, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) published its “Report on Creative Economy Employment in the EU and UK.” Its findings included that businesses in the arts and culture industry contribute an estimated £6 billion of gross value added (GVA) to the British economy; and that employment in the United Kingdom’s creative industries grew three times faster than in the European Union as a whole: 6.1 percent per annum on average vs. 1.8 percent per annum. In almost the same breath he announced further cuts of 20 percent to the budget for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. How to square the two positions? Why would the government impose austerity on one of the few sectors of the economy that it maintains is functioning admirably?

Vaunting the contribution of the arts and humanities to the country’s gross domestic product is to reduce them to engines of economic growth. This is in part symptomatic of an established pattern in Conservative policy toward national infrastructure, which is to quantify the industry in market terms, then slowly underfund it until it does not work anymore, followed by the announcement of vast and unsustainable losses, in which case privatization looks to everyone like the only available option. The disastrous (by any metric) privatizations of the rail network and the Post Office might be taken as examples. In each case long stretches of inadequate investment were accompanied by a campaign to reframe the discourse around these institutions away from their broader (and admittedly more nebulous) service toward the public good and toward their nickels and dimes contribution to the Treasury. By characterizing the value of social endeavors as quantifiable exclusively by economic indicators—semantic fudge—one creates the conditions for their privatization when it becomes unviable according to those same indicators (easily achieved, of course, by cutting funding).

By drawing attention to culture’s substantial contribution to the national purse, the strategy invites a counterattack for which it has already legislated, like a chess move that opens a trap. The temptation is to quote the government’s own statistics back at it as evidence that the arts deserves funding precisely because it represents such a good investment. On the very terms laid out by the government, it seems obvious to point out, it makes no sense to cut support for the arts further. Look at all the money it makes via tax revenue, its employment figures! Look at its investment potential! Look at its capacity to push forth your agenda! It is very hard to resist pointing out the glaring logical inconsistency, even while a part of your brain must recognize that the governmental definition of arts and culture is much wider than that which you are really intent on defending.

To do so, of course, is to tacitly accept that culture can and should be tied to a market model. The relentless bombardment of statistics tying ‘the culture industries’ to various economic indicators serves to establish a correspondence between the two that colors every future argument about the viability of the arts and not only the amount of funding that it should receive but what qualifies as a worthy beneficiary of that funding. We risk colluding in the creation of an attitude to arts and culture that judges it exclusively according to the financial returns it offers on investment, and that therefore privileges artistic and cultural activity that delivers those returns over that which does not.

In a recent piece for e-flux conversations, Morgan Quaintance makes a compelling argument that the recent award of the Turner Prize to Assembly made precisely this misstep. The imaginative redevelopment of a run-down Toxteth housing estate by a collective of socially responsible young architects and designers is an inarguably Good Thing. So it seems counterintuitive to argue against its recognition by the committee and the attendant publicity it received. Yet the collective do not self-identify as artists, nor do they conceive of their work as art. By categorizing their practice—which is ultimately about the provision of decent housing for the British population—as art, the Turner Prize committee might be seen to be trying to demonstrate art’s usefulness to society, its ability to contribute to the infrastructural and economic health of the nation. By these means it plays into the hands of any argument for the relevance of art that depends upon its ability to achieve results justifiable on the Right’s own terms. What seems like a critical position is in fact a compliant one.

Marketization is a remarkably effective and flexible instrument for the suppression of dissent. Margaret Thatcher used the basic principle that markets are inherently self-regulating—and therefore purer and more efficient means of administration than centralized government—as the ideological position to justify the break-up of the industrial unions that opposed her. 2“I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it: ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.’ ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society.” Margaret Thatcher in a speech to the Zurich Economic Society, “The New Renaissance,” 14 March 1977. Now this approach is pressed into action to suppress any activity that might constitute a more diffuse kind of opposition to the government. 3In an interesting illustration of the covert and unpredictable means by which marketization can suppress dissent, an article by Jeremy Seabrook on the Miners’ Strike of 1984–85 makes a compelling link between the recent privatization of housing and collusion with the government. The Thurcroft strikers pointed out that those miners who refused to join the pickets, or felt compelled to return to the mines, were rarely the poorest. Instead, they were the miners with mortgages, who feared repossession. The Thatcher government had sanctioned the sell-off of council housing in 1980. Indebtedness legislates against militancy.

We need only look to the marketization of higher education in England to see how popular sentimental attachments to the role of an institution can be swept away in the wake of such tacit surrenders to the framework (if not the conclusions) of neoliberal discourse. Staff are employed according to the likelihood that they can bring in research grants; money is redirected to advertising and promotional departments that secure new students (who pay full whack irrespective of whether they complete the year); the employment of administrators vastly outnumbers the uptake in academic staff; professors are overburdened with bureaucracy while corporate-style CEOs take home six-figure salaries. As Arts Emergency—a charity established in 2011 in reaction to the imposition of tuition fees and the consequent crisis in access to third-level education for students from working-class backgrounds—puts it, “people [now] view degrees, as a financial trade off based on perceived employability.”

The upshot is that universities are now organized according to the same neoliberal economies of value that the government adheres to. Having accepted marketization by degrees, the higher education system has effectively become an instrument of government policy, focused on delivering ‘value-for-money’ (meaning, money-for-money). 4The academic Marina Warner has written of the consequences of marketization in the London Review of Books: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n17/marina-warner/diary. Humanities departments bear a disproportionately high brunt of the cuts in funding because it is difficult to demonstrate how its clients can easily integrate into a system for maximizing profit when they leave. It is no coincidence that these faculties, whose mission is to instruct students in ways of thinking other than the dominant one, have traditionally been the drivers of student activism. This combination of factors means that the universities’ capacity for independent thought outside the prevailing market ideology—and by extension dissent—has been neutralized to an astonishing degree. The university as a seat of learning outside the immediate pressures of the market is no more, for all that we would like to believe otherwise. 5It is important to distinguish here between the system and those lecturers, faculties, and student bodies who continue to work tirelessly to promote independent thought. They are now working against the broader system, rather than being supported by it.

I do not intend here to try and identify a single alternative set of metrics according to which we can measure the contribution of the arts and humanities to our societies. For the purpose of this piece, it is enough simply to show how successful the current British government has been in imposing its own, and how this serves a broader ideological purpose.

With the reduction and redirection of central subsidies according to the outlined principles, it will become increasingly difficult to create, exhibit, publish, or otherwise disseminate works of art that are not immediately commercially viable. Self-evidently, the practices least suited to the market economy are precisely those which seek to imagine alternatives to it. It is a beautiful double bind, and one which operates at a rhetorical as much as a financial level. The ultimate aim is to renegotiate the very way we evaluate art’s importance to our society.

These are not new dilemmas but they do seem pressing today. The best means of opposing these changes may simply be to keep talking, meeting, making, writing, thinking, reading, challenging, arguing, and gathering; proposing and defending as many different ways that art can be valuable to society while refusing as much as possible to accept a single monolithic interpretation of how to quantify its contribution. As ever, the best way to defend art is to keep making it.