Pittsburgh, once a manufacturing city ...

... tries to revitalize itself as a hip cultural center.

"Let them eat cake" candle sold by the Chateau de Versailles.

Ad campaign for Vodaphone.

Ad for a personal training program. Produce a new you.

In the commodity-spectacle society, urban decay can even become a make-up brand.

Andy Warhol’s self-portraits "worth" $40 million?

Impovershed Paducah vs. nostalgia for gentility and old wealth.

Reproducing Victorian gentility

This home preserves an old Victorian character. Everything here from legs of tables and beds to bathtubs are wrapped in thick velvets and tapestries, evoking Victorian repressed sexuality.

Home office work promises autonomy, integration of work and family, and non-alienated labor.



Capital limits on creativity: neoliberalism and its uses of art

by Jyotsna Kapur

There was something perverse about the concept of “Creative Culture Industries/Creative Economy” that has become fully comprehensible in light of the ongoing economic crisis since 2008 and its roots in the shift towards neoliberalism and financialization since the 1970s.[1] [open endnotes in new window] Born in the centers of post-industrial capitalism (U.S., UK, and Australia) at the end of the 20th century, the Creative Culture Industries discourse is now a global phenomenon. Its opening logic was simple. According to one of its leading proponents, Richard Florida (2002), old manufacturing cities from the pre-Reagan era — like his own hometown, Pittsburgh — could revitalize themselves by reinventing themselves as hip, touristy cultural centers that would entice global elites to converge upon and, perhaps, even settle in. The heart of Pittsburgh’s creative economy, the South Side, boasts of restaurants, artists in residence, a Zombie walk, and a circus.

In other words, museums, theme parks, cultural/heritage festivals, convention centers, hotels, casinos, artist studios, and cafes were imagined as engines that would pull local economies out of joblessness and declining access to quality-of-life factors such as, education, health care, and social welfare set in motion over three decades of neoliberal restructuring. The absurd irony is this: While the middle and working class struggle with declining incomes and fuelled their consumption with debt, the “creative economy” experts propose to further multiply the opportunities for private consumption. Legend has it that when the French people rioted for bread in 1789 the queen, Marie-Antoinette, allegedly asked, “Why don’t they eat cake?”[2] Meanwhile, the arts now reduced to an economic function have become answerable to the harsh scrutiny of the market — i.e., they survive only if they can pay for themselves. It is fitting, then, that faced with neoliberal cuts, veritable institutions of high art such as the Château de Versailles should put on the market a scented “let them eat cake” candle.

As Doreen Cajaval reported in the New York Times, struggling with declining endowments and public subsidy, museums in the United States and Europe have begun resorting to licensing, merchandizing, and turning their grounds into hotels.[3] It is an irony that should not be lost. Under the Creative Economy banner, the arts are supposed to revive the economy but instead find themselves struggling to survive. Now the savior needs to be saved!

Underlying this apparent paradox lies the real problem: neoliberalism and its use of arts and culture. Understanding this relation in the broader context of deepening capitalistic relations of exploitation, commodification, and abstraction can help explain the Faustian bargain that 21st century capitalism has imposed on the arts. While the arts get a new pre-eminence in public life, they have been completely subordinated to the market. In other words, they get a new lease on life but lose their soul. By turning the arts into a purely commercial enterprise, neoliberalism has attacked the very core of artistic expression. Art relies on a sense of imagination, resistance, and community that underlies it and exceeds the rules of the market.

By neoliberalism, I mean the transition of state policy, since the Reagan years, to 19th century principles of the free-market; i.e., to the belief that any intervention by the state towards social redistribution creates an unfair tax on the rich. Aided by new technologies (broadly characterized as ICT/Information and Communication Technologies) and business practices (increasing financialization that has made the flow of capital as well as speculation easier, and just-in-time leaner practices of production and distribution) over the last four decades, capitalists have enjoyed a high degree of freedom, moving jobs where labor is cheaper and buoying consumer demand at home through credit, thus sowing the seeds of the current economic crisis.[4]

Explaining the roots of the 2008 crash, David McNally (2009) recounts two simultaneous ongoing processes since the 70s — an increasing rate of profit for those at the top amidst stagnating or falling working and middle class incomes. Middle and working class incomes have declined as jobs were shifted overseas to cheaper sources of labor. This condition is easier as world-over restrictions on global capital have been eased with China, India, and East Asia opening up their economies to global investment. For instance, a data entry job in India can be done at 1/10th of what would have to be paid in the United States for the same work. Furthermore, the neoliberal argument for a weak government justifies both tax cuts for the rich as well as withdrawing redistributive social welfare programs. One of the strongest moves in this direction came in 1996 under Bill Clinton, a Democrat, with his “welfare reform,” which limited state payments to low-income families to five years and also discontinued increase in family welfare with the birth of a child. Such cuts have only exacerbated with the 2008 crisis, leading to drastic cuts in state funding to public education, retirement plans, and healthcare. To compensate for a decline in income, three factors have helped the working and middle class sustain itself since the 1970s. These include working harder and longer (taking on two jobs, all members of the family going to work), using credit and benefiting from Third World labor, whose production filled Walmarts and Toys R Us, etc., and helped subsidize consumption in the United States

Simultaneous with this decline in working and middle-class incomes, McNally indicates, the wealthy demanded more venues in which to invest their increasing profits. What distinguishes neoliberalism from earlier capitalist formations is the preponderance of financialization. A deregulation of finance started, as David Harvey (2010, 16) mentions, in the 1970s, and it became “unstoppable” in the 1990s, producing globally traded instruments of financial speculation. The rich invested in the stock market, betting on rising real estate values, commodities such as art and oil, and financial instruments, such as credit defaults. The low interest rates—particularly, for mortgage and credit—that working and middle class people were offered were a response to this demand for financial investment venues. According to McNally, by understanding how the expansion of financial speculation has been grounded in profits generated by neoliberal restructuring, we can correct a misperception, indeed fetishization, that capital has been generating capital out of itself rather than through class exploitation. In other words, working and middle class debt was an instrument of capital accumulation for the wealthy. More commonly, it has been seen just as a short-term strategy to fuel consumption in order to prevent the deepening of the slump that began in 1997, was reactivated in 2001, and reappeared in 2008.

The Creative Economy thesis was offered as a solution to the growing inequality which became apparent in the worn down blue-collar neighborhoods and towns, boarded-up businesses, foreclosed homes, and the erosion of a middle class lifestyle that the U.S. working class had been sold to as the American Dream. Commenting on the growing class inequality in the United States, The New York Times and Wall Street Journal reported that class mobility in the United States, i.e., the possibility that a child would move upwards from his/her parents’ class, is lower than in Canada and Europe but not as low as in Brazil.[5] With average student loans of $30,000 upon graduation, in a state school such as mine, one routinely hears working and middle class college-going young people admit that they do not expect to match their parents’ standard of living—the first generation in living memory in the United States to face a future of declining expectations.

Yet from the 70s onwards, the dominant ideology has been one of freedom, albeit one based on the freedom of market choices. Culture and the aestheticization of life has been a core commodity of this speculative, debt-driven economy geared towards private consumption. As David Harvey and others have explained, there has been an exponential increase, during this period, in marketing and advertising and the quantity and quality of goods, ranging from household gadgets to personal products. (1990) Not just products but consumers are being “invented” in increasingly smaller niche groups — such as tweens or empty nesters — or through the hydra-like growth of whole service industry categories — such as the personal fitness industry. This is the material basis of what cultural critics, like Guy Debord, have called the society of spectacle. (1983) Not only are the market-shelves filled with novelties that rapidly go out of fashion, but consumer culture encourage a subjectivity perpetually engaged in self-improvement and presentation, in designing life itself. From retail chains that call themselves “tastemakers” and “curators of people’s lifestyles, if not their lives” to fashion styles that entice us to, “Paint the town in pastel,” “Find the art in the everyday,” and “Express the real U,” we are all invited to invent ourselves and turn our life into a work of art, that is, if we have the money to do so.

The 2008 crash and the refusal of the neoliberal state to revise its course is beginning to pull the veneer off the liberatory pretensions of consumer-capitalism. The opportunities of private consumption remain, if not enhanced, in narrowing enclaves. But our social fabric is tearing apart from the palpable escalation in social inequality. In this scenario, when the Creative Culture Industries experts suggest that to revive our economies we need to dress up our towns and cities for the entertainment of the wealthy few, their ideas — to use that American phrase — amount to putting lipstick on a pig. The role of artists within these deepening capitalist relations is to serve as humble servants — set up studios, cafes and late night bars, create art to enliven the walls of corporate offices and banks — for a class that treats its hometown as a tourist destination and life as a series of adventures in shopping. For the wealthy, who can afford to wait out the slump, collecting art will remain a matter of speculative investment, and such opportunism, if it works, will be validated as a forward-looking, smart, and go-getting entrepreurialism. In this vein, at a 2011 auction, Andy Warhol’s self-portraits were expected to fetch around $40 million.[6]

A trickle-down theory underlies the Creative Economy thesis, and it implies the majority’s abject dependence on the charity of the wealthy. The theory is this: the wealthy will put their money toward creating jobs or increasing production for others. It has simply not proven to be true. First of all, capitalism cannot sustain full emplyment because the unemployed are necessary to drive down everyone’s wages. Ultimately, profits depend upon the ability of capital to lower wages. Second, the wealthy prefer to invest in ways that will raise the value of their investments, as in art such as Warhol’s self-portraits, rather than in increasing production, say, of education material for inner-city schools, whose profits are not capitalized. The whole point of capitalism is to suck up the wealth not to push it down. Unless the rich face an external pressure towards social redistribution of wealth, such as put by the state and popular movements, it makes more sense for them to make speculative investments in art rather than build social infrastructure or treat art as a public good rather than a privately commodity.

The results of the Creative Culture Industry policy have already started to come in. Kate Oakley, among others, has shown that in the case of Britain these policies have exacerbated rather than eliminated inequality. They have led to gentrification and pockets of wealth in the midst of disintegrating social infrastructure. At the same time, work in the creative industries has become increasingly precarious — that is, temporary, project-based, and competitive, putting artists and media people in a constant in search of work (2006). As Richard Shearmur has indicated, calling upon local governments to modify their policies, planning, and budgets in order to respond to the preferences of the creative class boils down to reinforcing and subsidizing elites to a kind of ‘talent welfare’ that is reminiscent of ‘corporate welfare’ (2006-7, 37). In the process, art’s entire social role is undergoing a profound transformation. From being considered an imaginative and critical outsider or a participant in social transformation, the artist is now presented as the model worker of the new economy.

Closer to where I live, in Paducah, Kentucky, a similar plan was launched in 2000. Called the Artists Relocation Plan, it invited artists to relocate to Paducah, giving them moving allowances as well as easy financing and low cost housing to revamp old, deserted homes in the lower-riverfront area. Right from the outset, the city planners seemed aware that local elites would not be able to generate the art buying necessary to support the artists. Consequently, the program sought artists who already had an established track record in online sales and could, therefore, continue to rely on that market. Explaining who would qualify for the program, their website stated:

“Qualifying emphasizes sustainability. PRA seeks artists that have achieved some notoriety in the art world. Qualified candidates are identified as persons in the field of art using a successful art business model. The artist must be able to demonstrate that their business produces sufficient sales and clients to support the artist while living/working in Paducah, KY. Special consideration will be granted to galleries and businesses that are ‘open to the public’ and maintain a minimum number of ‘open’ hours. Considerations may be given to artists that commit to making substantial contributions to the community through workshops or other highly desirable projects.”

In other words, local artists who had failed to find a market outside of Paducah and politically engaged artists whose subject matter or style was too radical and who may not readily sell their work need not apply.

Neoliberal urbanization, David Harvey tells us, is strongly interconnected with consumerism, a boutique style life, which has turned the quality of life into a commodity up for purchase for those who can afford it (2010, 175). Paducah has what is called “legacy money,” old wealth, but it too appears to have taken a hit in the current crisis. Today, Paducah’s lower-town area has coffee shops, art galleries, and studios but they wear a deserted look. Already some artist homes have been foreclosed, galleries open only one Saturday a month, and the area wears an air of desperation akin to tourist bazaars in the Third World, where a sale makes the difference between making that month’s rent, groceries, or any other basic necessity. The desperation rings in the efforts of artists to extend conversations so as to keep visitors in the gallery and entice them to buy. Visually, several places boarded up or for sale clash with the gentility and nostalgia of old wealth, insides of designer homes, and some truly whimsical art work. Visiting the area feels like going into a surreal, Alice-in-Wonderland enchanted world where you can walk through the looking glass to step from prettified appearances into a starkly impoverished life.

The bedroom in this home preserves the mirror image the Victorians were so fond of. From one end of the room, you can see the two bedrooms mirror each other. The Victorian bourgeois home was the earliest site ... ... of the display of bourgeois purchasing power filled with wealth from the colonies. In Paducah, dressed up home fronts and patios promise a life filled with art. See the canvas in the patio.
A designer home has a digital TV screen on which European art images run in a loop. This home has a giant giraffe, on the left, peering into the balcony!
A well-maintained set of luxury condos. A colonial home flies a Confederate flag from the top right balcony.

Despite its name, the Artists Relocation program is concerned not so much with developing the arts but boosting real estate values. This is evident in the pride with which remodeling is celebrated and ubiquitous information offered about home financing and construction services. One of the homes on the tour displayed “before” and “after” pictures of the reconstruction (pasted on the staircase) and another preserved a wall kept in its original condition.

The artists’ homes themselves are hardly luxurious and some artists offer part of their homes as bed-and-breakfast places. A few miles away a local Walmart prospers. Its cheaper prices, made possible by Third World labor, helps subsidize the middle and working class people here just as in other parts of the United States

In fact, shifting labor to the Third World has been a key ideological justification for as well as a feature of neoliberalism. Neoliberal advocates, such as Thomas Freidman, have claimed that shipping the drudge work elsewhere would free people in the United States to “do what they do best, which is invent the future.” (2005, 389) The U.S. white-collar workforce was offered the idea that a post-capitalist economy had already arrived where the very nature of work was transformed, resembling the “flexible, open, interactive model of the scientist’s lab or the artist’s studio” rather than “the machine model of the factory or the traditional corporate office.” (Florida, 117) Posed against sunny windows and palatial homes, happily integrating work and family with complete autonomy over one’s time and place of work, these images suggest that the conditions of non-alienated labor are already here. All you have to do is reinvent yourself to fit the new economy.

In contrast, in its February 2004 (Issue 12.02), Wired like Time (June 2006) chose to represent the Indian IT worker in familiar Orientalized tropes that brush aside the anxiety and pain generated by outsourcing. The covers appears to gently mock anyone who would be so timid, shall we say unmanly, as to be threatened by such beckoning, seductive calls to give up monotonous work in exchange for the freedom to invent and create.

Consequently, there is little sympathy expressed for a wilting U.S. white-collar worker pictured against a flurry of pink slips in the same issue of Wired. Inundated by pink slips, this white-collar professional, Wired seems to suggest, needs to get a grip and straighten up. Otherwise, he would be no different from his Indian male counterpart entangled in yoga poses and tied to the ground, as in this cover of The Economist (June 1st, 2006).

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