We are all economists now, baby.


Rebecca Conroy

 

More than in any other context, commodities are most true to themselves as art.1 Joshua Simon

 

Dialogue, not money, is the real currency of the art world, it is discourse that binds it together, forms the artists’ cliques, the dealers’ whispers and the critics’ nods.2 Erik Empson

 

The fractured human beings, the infinite threads that tie them to one another, the different ‘spheres’ between which they move – all those converge into one totalizing logic: the logic of capital.3 Bichler and Nitzan

 

[…] not the end of colonialism but the end of the standpoint from which colonialism makes sense. In order to bring colonialism to an end then, one does not speak truth to power, one has to inhabit the crazy, nonsensical, ranting language of the other, the other who has been rendered a nonentity by colonialism.4 Harney and Morten


1. The fixing of social practices

“The Arts” have long served two opposing masters. One is a desiring machine that seeks to expand our ideas on what it means to be human, through the reflexive and dialectical exchange of thought and action; the other is a prudent and pragmatic beast that demands a restricted expenditure in order to maximize a surplus economy, typically through sponsorship and box office. Whilst our minds recoil at the idea of art being shackled by the immoral and crude impositions of commerce or industry, the reality is that the production and distribution of art takes place within a capitalist economy. In fact, this dance with capital and the imbrication of the arts with commerce has persisted for more than 400 years—long before ‘political economy’ was even a word.5 In our collective denial of its ‘riches’ (and our insistence on a mistaken purity and innocence) we have perpetuated the illusion in our current milieu that the arts are anything but a playground for the production and distribution of capital. This has enabled the smokescreen of real capital to continue apace, the collusion and complicity of ‘Big Art’ with the forces of capital as power, and the subsuming of all value within its reign; it is now the only thing that promotes and defines the cosmology of the arts value system.6

And now, as everyone from Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt7 to Maurizio Lazzarato8 and Christian Marrazzi9 tell us, capital has impregnated our bodies and financialized every aspect of our life, commodifying our hearts and our futures. With such a munificent, unified and homogenized field of relations—surely it is time for the charitable arm of the philanthropists to take its final curtain call? As the creative worker takes centre stage and extends the metaphors of creativity to an ever-expanding number of business and industry discourses (creativity and innovation now being the hallmark of all leading corporate entities), the role of the philanthropist in pursuing the moral imperative to support the arts as a separate sphere of meaningful activity, is rendered anachronistic.10 The function of the philanthropist recedes in concert with the creative industries’ expanded field of intangible flexible exchange values. There is no longer any use for a separate field of “charitable giving” as the artist herself has become the ultimate subjectivity involved in self-improvement and presentation, as the precarious deployment of her “creative labour” and symbolic utility embeds itself deeper and deeper within the bio-political machinery of the neoliberal project.11

While the business ‘community’ and ubiquitous economic think tanks continue with their disastrous narratives shaping the global debate on the ‘natural’ social order of things, and dictate the decisions regarding the value and price of life, artists remain the true and authentic experts in the art of deception and symbolic economy. Since finance speculation rests on the abstract and arbitrary fiction of mobile capital, the position of “narrative” assumes preeminence and economy becomes the “grand narrative” about what we tell ourselves about what is valuable—increasingly through the discourse of “creative industries”.

The rise of the “creative industries” in today’s field of production, can trace its genealogy back to the building of the first playhouses in Elizabethan England when “theatre” secured its first paying customer.12 The fixing of theatrical playing spaces to the built form occurred during the Renaissance and Jacobean periods, and signified the emergence of capitalism’s early attempts to stabilise and commodify, as a separate sphere of activity, what was hitherto an unregulated process of spontaneous ‘play’.13 Of course at the time, this development was matched by the concurrent rise in moral panic, which continues to shadow the arts today on several fronts: from those who would disavow its inherent “political economy” and maintain it as a clinically aesthetic realm (exemplified by recent public commentary and debates on the Transfield boycott of the 2014 Biennale of Sydney to keep politics out of art14), and those who consider the arts a trade in immorality or non conformity, as a violation of religious doctrine or building code and civic order (exemplified through the continual clampdown on artist run spaces in Sydney and elsewhere, and the censorship of art, notably in the case of photographic artist Bill Henson).

In other more significant ways the theatre was considered direct competition to the church through its potential diversion of audience and subsequent loss of financial patronage of the church. This ‘false temple’ was eventually shut down along with all theatres in England ordered to close in 1642 by Queen Elizabeth I. Meanwhile during the period prior, an estimated 50 million peasants and nobility made a visit to the playhouse15. For the first time, the establishment of the theatre building enabled an admission price to be extracted from each audience member. Curiously at the same time the first money market was built not far from the first theatre by Thomas Gresham who began construction in 1566 of the Royal Exchange in Lombard Street, London “dedicated in large part to matters of national and international finance, changing foreign money and distributing new coinage.”16 The similarity in architecture of the first finance markets with that of the first theatre building is a description worth quoting:

Open to the elements, the Exchange is depicted as a kind of argentaria mundi, a “bank of the world” where the counsellors of seasonal change feelingly argue for the naturalness of commercial exchange – all performed under the open gaze of heaven. Heywood’s description of the design’s open “space” also makes the Exchange sound much like the physically exposed theatrum mundi of the Elizabethan amphitheaters – in one of which this description would have first been heard.17

In other ways the money markets mimicked the strategies and conventions of theatre: a setting of dim theatrical lights was perfect for the display of poorly made items, and much like the dress circle in the Elizabethan Amphitheatre with its highly stratified seating arrangement, seeing the play was just as important as ‘being seen’ by others. As Bruster notes: “selling goods and selling performances, evolves out of the gaze, display, and the way seeing anticipates and infuses buying.”18

 

2. Unstitching art from its labour and back again

Patronage of the arts, whether conceived as the royal patronage of ‘The Kings Men’ who sponsored Shakespeare’s activity, or the later subsidies and commissions by private foundations such as the Rockefellers, can be considered contiguous with state subsidy. Although conceived variously as feudal, private or public, each represents the social organisation of power designed to control the production of meaning and the circulation of narratives supportive of the existing status quo. The gradual separation, beginning in the 18th century of art and the artist from the constraints of the church and artisan guilds who regulated their economy, was later transformed by broader changes to the social organisation of labour and production through the emergence of capitalism preempted by the emergence of new technologies such as the printing press, industrial agriculture and the industrial revolution. This marks the modernist phase to which much art criticism and art production remains fettered.

In considering the economic life of the arts and the increasing irrelevance of philanthropy as instruments for the financing of art, I am drawing from Shimshon Bichler and Jonathan Nitzan’s 2009 text ‘Capital as Power’, which radically reconsiders the ontological entity of capitalism as distinct from the dominant understanding of Capitalism as a theory anchored in the separate fields of Economics and Politics, defined largely in terms of abstract labour, surplus and productivity. Debunking the ‘hopelessly unscientific’19 field of neoclassical economics together with Marxism’s political economy, both of which maintain an impossible distinction between the fields of politics and economy, Bichler and Nitzan assert neoclassical political economy as:

[…] an ideology in the service of the powerful. It is the language in which the capitalist ruling class conceives and shapes society. Simultaneously, it is also the tool with which this class conceals its own power and the means with which it persuades others to accept that power. 20

Bichler and Nitzan’s thesis investigates capital as the creative site for the production and expansion of power, which they describe as “the creation of order” or creorder. Capitalization is the algorithm used for this creation of order—speculating on potential future worth and human capital.21 They also use the term Mega-machine of Capitalism to define dominant or large state-market monopolies of power, which are understood principally as the social organisation of systems for controlling people, as opposed to the conventional neoclassical or Marxist emphasis on production and the desire to emancipate the worker from the capitalist means of production.

 

3. The artist as self-enterprise and the rise of the culturepreneur

Whilst Bichler and Nitzan reject the various names given to capital which would maintain them as nuanced divisions such as finance capitalism, consumer capitalism, social capital, cognitive capital etc., which they conjecture are simply differing expressions of the whole-of-life Mega-machine of Capital, it is useful to consider the hegemonic position of finance capitalism and its ‘affect’ on forms of social organisation, and its emergence alongside the rise of the knowledge worker, or the cognitariat22 as Franco ‘Bifo’ Beradi elaborates in what he terms Semiocapitalism:

The rise of post-Fordist modes of production, which I will call Semiocapitalism, takes the mind, language and creativity as its primary tools for the production of value. In the sphere of digital production, exploitation is exerted essentially on the semiotic flux produced by human time at work.23

It would seem that the rest of the economy is finally catching up to the already advanced behaviours of the artist, and has learnt to be flexible, precarious, and centre its economy on the production of ideas and affect and other intangibles such as reputation, name recognition, and goodwill—the stock of the artist. And much like the reality of the precarious freelance art worker, the economy of labour is configured as 24/7 and reconceived as predominantly relational. As ‘finance capitalism’ matures to commodify subjectivities, the artist meanwhile completes her cycle of separation as labour from industry to the specialised sacred autonomous sphere and back again—to the biopolitical insistence of capitalism subsuming all forms of life in order to put them to work to create surplus.

 

4. The mega-machine of capitalism and the true masters of deception

Just as the fear of God’s wrath and the promise of an afterlife was used by the sovereign nobility to beat the peasantry into submission and expropriate the commons, the myth making performance of capitalism has evolved to perfect this transfer of abundance into scarcity with increasingly more sophisticated and elaborate strategies for making invisible the hand of god as the market. But it is not the business world that has led the way; rather it is the business world that has borrowed from the world of image crafting, storytelling, and the artisans of aesthetics and pleasure and masters of affect. It is the crafting of an illusion and its perceived naturalness in which the spirit of capitalism appears logical, scientific, proper, fair and clean from the tarnished emotions and power of the human. Like theatre and like art, it requires us to suspend disbelief. But as Bichler and Nitzan argue so eloquently, Capital isn’t about Power—it is Power. And it is precisely within this—the human’s capacity to create theatre, to create story, to imagine what it is not, to suspend disbelief, to render in symbolic form an object to stand in for what it is not, to remember a past and to imagine a future—that both servitude and emancipation are inextricably linked. It is through these human made strategies that the hand of the market is rendered invisible, and the workings of capital as power “appear” as if natural, ubiquitous and inevitable. And continue to spread its destructive and servile logic as inevitable and powerless to abate.

But it remains, the story about capital is just one of many stories that can be told.24 The theatre of deception operated by the mega-machine of Capital as Power takes its cue from the masters of deception and image-making: the artist. It is now time for the student of commerce to return to school and take a few more lessons, as the master artist assumes the stage in the ultimate performance as Embodied Capital and, following its fictitious virtuous and vicious circular logic, aids and abets in the destruction of itself. But not without the collective decisive action and movement of those who wish to bring an end to capitalism’s totalising reign.

If the political-economic order of the world has taken a social turn towards creativity, then the artist must assume its rightful place at its sacrificial altar. And, taking its cue from the much-lauded creative-destruction of capitalism, we must smash it into the ground, and with it all those well-meaning extensions of charity who continue to profligate their violent arranged marriage with the forces of capital as a benevolent gift to those considered as the misfortunate. From the debris of the missiles landing on Gaza, we must rebuild and reimagine a different chaos, one based on the mutual aid and collective subjectivation of all of us that remain. It is time for all forms of capitalisation to take a final bow. We are all economists now.


1. Joshua Simon, Neo- Materialism, Part One: The Commodity and the Exhibition. (Eflux, no. 20 [November], 2010), np.

2. Erik Empson, “High Price of Success.” Free Art Catalogue (October 2009), 2.

3. Shimshom Bichler & Johnathan Nitzan, Capital as Power: a Study of Order and Creorder, (RIPE Series in Global Political Economy. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge. 2009), 9.

4. Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, (New York: Minor Compositions, 2013), 8.

5. In their text ‘Capital as Power’, Bichler and Nitzan refer to James King’s study on Political Economy, where he traces the first appearance of the word economy to 1611 in a work by Louis de Mayerne-Tuquet. 39.

6. We can take as evidence of what I am calling ‘Big Art’ within the phenomenal rise of the biennale circuit and superstar artists and curators, along with the merging of contemporary art with celebrity personalities, and the creation of super brands of art, commerce and fashion.

7. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, (London  N.Y.: Penguin Books, 2006).

8. Maurizio Lazzarato, Signs and Machines: Capitalism and the Production of Subjectivity, Trans. Joshua Simon Jordan, (Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2014).

9. Christian Marazzi, ‘The Violence of Financial Capitalism’ Semiotext(e) Intervention Series 2, (Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2011).

10. Erik Empson, ‘Art Work or Not Art Work? ‘Free Art Catalogue (October 2008), p36–44. & ‘High Price of Success’, in Free Art Catalogue (October 2009), 57–58. As Erik Empson articulated in the 2009 Free Art Catalogue: “At the same time much of the precariousness, irregularity, flexibility and types of free labour that previously characterised artistic practice has been generalised to all working lives… All social activity is now imbued with immaterial and affective elements and it is impossible to think of aesthetic communication as an extraeconomic category”. 38.

11. I am using the term neoliberalism to mean the whole-of-life pattern of human endeavour principally determined by the economy as governed by the imperatives of a free market, the privatisation of previously government owned services (health, education, energy), changes in labour laws and the behaviour of labour as determined by the rise in just-in-time industrial practices. Neoliberalism as a term itself first emerged from a gathering in 1947 of economic theorists led by Austrian political philosopher Friedrich von Hayek, who went onto to create the Mont Pelerin Society (named after the Swiss spa where they first met).  David Harvey (2005) has written broadly on the subject particularly where it concerns its spatialised expressions and forms; I also invoke the specific application of ‘subjectivation’ by Maurizio Lazzarato to illustrate the ways in which the neoliberal subject has mutated to become the entrepreneurial self in “the lifestyle of perpetual self improvement” (Lazzarato, Signs and Machines: Capitalism and the Production of Subjectivity, 2014, 4).

12. Douglas Bruster, ‘Drama and the Market in the Age of Shakespeare’ Cambridge Studies in Renaissance Literature and Culture. (London: Cambridge University Press) 2005.

13. Before the establishment of permanent playhouses, performance troupes would travel itinerantly in the country and perform in an ad-hoc fashion on the back of a wagon, often dramatizing current issues, predominantly of a religious theme.

14. Helen Razer, ‘Sydney Biennale: Artists Divide Over Money’, in Crikey, (Feb 20, 2014). For more coverage see http://dailyreview.crikey.com.au/sydney-biennale-artists-divide-over-dirty-money/3219

15. Bruster,  “Drama and the Market in the Age of Shakespeare.” Cambridge Studies in Renaissance Literature and Culture 2005, 2.

16. Bruster,  “Drama and the Market in the Age of Shakespeare.” Cambridge Studies in Renaissance Literature and Culture 2005, 3.

17. Bruster,  “Drama and the Market in the Age of Shakespeare.” Cambridge Studies in Renaissance Literature and Culture 2005, 5.

18. Bruster,  “Drama and the Market in the Age of Shakespeare.” Cambridge Studies in Renaissance Literature and Culture 2005, 6.

19. ‘As a theoretical concept, capitalism seemed hopelessly unscientific. It was a remnant from a different era, from a time when people, haunted by ‘scarcity’, still viewed society through the hazy spectacles of political economy. The new social sciences – and particularly the science of economics – boasted far better and more precise categories.’ (Bichler and Nitzan, Capital as Power: a Study of Order and Creorder, 2009, 2).

20. Bichler and Nitzan, Capital as Power: a Study of Order and Creorder, 2009, 21.

21. Creorder is ‘a word that connotes the paradoxical fusion of being and becoming, state and process, stasis and dynamism… the mechanism through which capitalist power is commodified, structured and restructured’. (Bichler and Nitzan, Capital as Power: a Study of Order and Creorder, 2005, 18).

22. Franco Berardi, “Cognitarian Subjectivation.” E-flux 20 (November 2010).

23. Franco Berardi, “The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy.” Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents Series. (Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2009), 21.

24. Anton Vidokle, “Art Without Market, Art Without Education: Political Economy of Art.” E-flux 43 (March, 2013). See in particular Anton Vidolke’s writing on art and economy.

Rebecca Conroy is an interdisciplinary creature who shifts between directing, writing, producing, and organising across site based events, performance, curation, and discursive practices. For the...


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