Ian Milliss


Externalities is a term used in economics to describe effects that occur outside an economic activity, the costs or benefits imposed on others not directly involved or benefiting from the activity. In a way you could call them side effects.

How is this relevant to art?

I don’t really believe there is such a thing as art although I still use the term for convenience. When I talk seriously about art I mean what the Australian critic Donald Brook described as ‘memetic innovation’[1], the process of constantly adapting the cultural memes that underlie human society. This can take almost any form and be on almost any scale. The art world itself can be seen as a meme or the parasitic diversion of this ongoing process of cultural adaptation into a narrow range of sanctioned activities. That is what I mean when I talk about art here: objects or events that can be monetised through exhibition and collection. On the other hand, I use the term artist to describe those involved in cultural innovation, an activity that does not necessarily involve the manufacture of official Art.

I apologise in advance for the fact that I’m a Sunday economist. As Mel Ramsden once said to me about Art & Language‘s amateur philosophising, “If everyone else can be Sunday artists why can’t we be Sunday philosophers?”.[2] In defence of my amateurism I would simply point out that most of the art world lives in a bubble which will, like all human bubble worlds, soon be burst by climate disaster. Thinking outside this bubble may help us be better prepared even if right now there is nowhere outside neoliberal economics and its catastrophic environmental effects.

The most important movement in art since the 1970s, greater than any style movement, has been the imposition of a neoliberal economic model on the art world in which the market for art becomes the primary reason for art’s existence, rather than a secondary characteristic. All stylistic movements now play out inside this greater movement.

The 1960s and 1970s saw the last great phase of social goods expenditure of the post WW2 welfare state. This produced an expansion of publicly funded art education, museums, biennale style exhibitions, grants. An expansion of private activity in commercial galleries, auction houses, art fairs, philanthropy and even private museums ensued over subsequent decades.

From the late 1980s the collapse of the USSR signalled the beginning of a winner-takes-all approach by Western corporate capitalism. As corporate sponsored politicians gained control the imposition of extreme capitalism and neoliberalism gathered pace. Under neoliberalism almost every human activity is bludgeoned into a profit-making model, uses public money to facilitate or subsidise private profit-making activities, or is closed down. The art market, although important to the support of artists, was never the main reason for the existence of art that, at its most refined level, had been a sort of philosophical discussion.

The neoliberal model on the other hand focused on art as business to the exclusion of all else, although the final product can take a range of forms from decoration to entertainment to gambling. The core of the business is collectors and the trade in artefacts that are used to generate status and the appearance of cultural capital. Artists, having maintained the delusion of their centrality, are in fact peripheral. As precariously employed workers they are almost powerless price takers with a high level of unemployment, manufacturing objects that occasionally filter into the trading system where real profits are made by speculators and brokers.

Art world public institutions play a role in validating this trade, adding a premium to what have become little more than giant decorative poker chips. This gatekeeper role and their expansion into entertainment venues has meant that they remain safe from privatisation, despite the size of their assets in terms of collections and real estate. But in doing so they have become more dependent on private charity as public funding is squeezed year by year. This facilitates their use as playpens and billboards for wealthy benefactors. The funds provided by benefactors barely trickle down to the artists who, as content providers, are paid derisory fees at best.[3] Although their largely unpaid work makes artists benefactors-of-sorts, they are rarely acknowledged as such.

Advisers, art fairs, dealers and other activities related to the decorative and gambling functions of the art world have also multiplied, as have private vanity museums. Meanwhile the entertainment function and its closely related tourism agenda has expanded into over-designed venue museums and innumerable biennales, spawning a separate genre of bloated biennale art as a kind of commoditised globalist art.[4]

Australia, as a client state[5] with a comparatively small economy, has lagged behind in adopting this neoliberal version of industrialised art but it has some examples. There are several vanity museums owned by private collectors, for instance. The most prominent example, Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), began by combining the vanity museum and the architectural venue into a major entertainment and tourism business but is now planning to add an actual casino to the mix.[6]

If the driving forces behind these changes have been economic rather than cultural, it helps to borrow economic concepts to understand them. It could be argued, for instance, that there are elements of Gresham’s Law[7] (“bad money forces out good money”) in operation here, in the sense argued by Gregory Bateson when he reformulated Gresham’s Law in cultural terms. Bateson stated that “the oversimplified ideas will always displace the sophisticated and the vulgar and hateful will always displace the beautiful. And yet the beautiful persists.”[8]

But I think the concept of externalities provides a clearer view. As the the neoliberal art model has shaped up as an almost impermeable bubble of linked institutions and activities the excluded have faced a range of financial and social costs but have also reacted in ways that will ultimately undermine the neoliberal model. It could be compared to the way that the externalities of the fossil fuel industry such as CO2 pollution have increased costs for everyone but have also generated the renewable energy industry that will soon replace it.

Externalities can take many forms, not all financially quantifiable; some of them are even positive. The externalities related to the popularity of MONA, for instance, particularly the effect on tourism, are now a major element of the Tasmanian economy. In fact, tourism benefits are now used to justify public funding for institutions, blockbuster exhibitions, biennales and festivals throughout the country. At a local level the regenerative effect of artists and “creatives” renting in run down neighbourhoods is now an urban cliché. Their presence generates other businesses that after some time will increase real estate values that the artists themselves derive little benefit from. The more expensive real estate eventually forces the artists out again; a cycle that is so often repeated now that it has become cliché.

But I’m interested in two particular externalities that have developed around the neoliberal version of art: the development of innovative alternative forms and the growth of alternative distribution systems.

Limiting official art to easily handled and marketed forms has excluded artists involved in more innovative forms. Modern industrial production works on Fordist principles, standardising production and logistic processes and enabling the employment of cheaper less skilled labour whose most important characteristic is not innovation but an ability to tolerate repetition. What we see as a result is the re-statement of previous memes: Duchamp’s urinal becomes Damien Hirst’s shark; Oldenburg’s floppy big things become Jeff Koons’ shiny balloon dogs. What we are seeing is not art but stuff that looks like art. It panders by familiarity to a gullible audience; it has none of the disturbing changes in perception and understanding that should come with cultural innovation. And the people who manufacture it are entrepreneurs rather than innovators, exploiting existing memes by repackaging them. The global art business has effectively forced artists out of art. As cultural innovators they have moved elsewhere, into activities that don’t look like art.

The exclusion of these alternative forms has supported a growth in alternative distribution systems. The supposed (or potential) radicalism of Conceptualism was almost organically hijacked by the institutions as it became clear through the 1980s that discarding craft skills facilitated the rise of a type of art entrepreneur who could work the bureaucracies for funding, provide anodyne exhibition fodder, switch roles from artist to curator and back again and even play the celebrity. These are the “artists” promoted by neoliberalism, manufacturing the content that generates their business. The process is once again comparable to the fossil fuel industry. Just as coal fired power stations require coal mining, the neoliberal art models demands a very specific art product as generated by these art entrepreneurs.

You cannot repurpose coal-fired power stations into renewable power stations although you may be able to reuse the site for solar power production after you flatten them to the ground. But even the remaining poles and wires of their distribution system are only marginally useful when the majority of renewable energy can be produced where it is used. That is similar to the quandary created when a substantial proportion of cultural production moves from the official system into other distributed systems based online, for example. Entirely different artforms can be generated by Twitter or Instagram or Snapchat, and different modes of consumption with them. While these new forms do not exist outside of neoliberalism they do avoid the neoliberal art world, which remains chained to physical exhibition spaces that must be filled even if it means filling them with celebrities from the music and fashion industries as MOMA has in its current Björk exhibition.

Of course neoliberalism is now doomed simply because it has condemned us to catastrophic climate change. Either we destroy it in the process of fighting climate change or we fail and become extinct. Either way neoliberalism is finished.

This means that any discussion about art and culture at this point should not be couched in terms of an irrelevant art world and art market but rather in terms of cultural significance. What activities could help promote the wide range of cultural changes necessary to save us from our own suicidal stupidity? I don’t know the answer but I think I have a few clues, and some ideas about how we need to change the way we debate it, in order to support the activities that really matter rather than perpetuating an art world that doesn’t matter.

Cultural significance is not a difficult concept to understand. Although originally developed for heritage assessment[9] it can apply to all cultural artifacts. It has been codified in documents like the Burra Charter that summarises it as “the sum of the qualities or values that a place has, including the five values – aesthetic, historic, scientific, social and spiritual” and provides detailed tools for systematic evaluation. Although auction catalogue essays suggest these values underpin art market prices, it is clear from inflated speculative prices crashing as artists go out of fashion or low auction clearance rates for historically important artists, that the art market is not a reliable judge of cultural significance.

It is notoriously difficult to use these assessment tools on recent material as several of the categories need time to unfold. What is certain is that an objective significance assessment would show that street art, gaming, internet memes, YouTube videos, a wide range of blogs, selfies even, all have greater cultural and social impact than official Art. In fact, official Art now rides on the coat tails of these activities, often using them as subject matter in attempt to appropriate their influence. I’m not suggesting a prescriptive approach to what artists might do, I’m suggesting that if we define artists as those generating cultural change, then a more rigorous approach to defining and chasing down activities that may be culturally significant will produce a better understanding of art than the current vacuities generated by the neoliberal market place.

[1] Donald Brook, The Awful Truth About What Art Is [Adelaide: Artlink, 2008], an extended essay on Brook’s concept of art as memetic innovation.

[2] Mel Ramsden, 1999, in conversation with the author.

[3] Lisa Soskolne, “On Merit” The Artist As Debtor The Work of Artists in the Age of Speculative Capital, http://artanddebt.org/artist-as-debtor/ Posted February 22 2015. This essay addresses the US situation and the activities of Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.). Similar conditions have been found in UK research by a-n The Artists Information Company https://www.a-n.co.uk/explore/news/for/fees. The Australian National Association of Visual Arts (NAVA) cites this research when discussing fees in Australia and comments on its 2005 research “NAVA undertook research, conducted interviews with a range of organisations and practitioners and sent out a survey. We found that there was very variable compliance with industry standards by public institutions across all levels including national, state and regional galleries, university galleries, contemporary art and craft spaces and major events (like festivals and biennales). Some paid at the minimum recommended rates or higher, but most paid less or nothing at all.” https://visualarts.net.au/campaigns/artists-fees/

[4] Globalist art is art that could have been made anywhere by any artist that understands the rules. Commoditisation is the process of removing the characteristics that define source of origin or production method so that product can be both manufactured and marketed anywhere in the world with an expectation of reliability. Shared intellectual capital facilitates the process. The growth of large-scale entertainment exhibitions has created a demand for spectacle art with underlying formats that enable easy transport and handling. Although there can be superficial differences in appearance the works’ relationship to venue and audience remains globally consistent creating an ad hoc open standard controlling participation.

[5] Erik Paul, Australia as US Client State The Geopolitics of De-Democratisation and Insecurity. Melbourne: Palgrave Pivot, 2014.

[6] “MONA casino bid prompts talks over Federal Group monopoly”, ABC News: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-03-20/mona-casino-bid-prompts-talks-over-federal-group-monopoly/6334158, posted March 20 2015, 7:27am.

[7] “Gresham’s Law” Encyclopedia Britannica, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/245850/Greshams-law accessed March 20 2015.

[8] Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature A Necessary Unity, New York: EP Dutton 1979: 6.

[9]ICOMOS Practice Notes Understanding and assessing cultural significance”, http://australia.icomos.org/wp-content/uploads/Practice-Note_Understanding-and-assessing-cultural-significance.pdf, accessed March 20 2015. The Burra Charter developed by Australia ICOMOS has become the world standard for assessing cultural significance and is therefore in its own right an important cultural artifact. This document summarises the criteria and issues that are explored in more detail in other documents on the ICOMOS site http://australia.icomos.org/ including the assessment toolkit http://australia.icomos.org/publications/australia-icomos-heritage-toolkit/.

Ian Milliss began exhibiting in 1968 as the youngest member of Central Street Gallery. By 1971 his early conceptualism developed into a practice based on...


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