More from Art and Social Change – Bradley and Esche .
‘The end of the 1980s saw important political and structural victories for neo-liberalism, and the end of the Soviet hegemony marked this shift in the balance of power. Industrial production increasingly was located in politically repressive, low-wage, low-rights regimes outside the core economies of the West. The development of institutions of global capital beyond the reach of the nation state, on which almost all democratic discourse was still based, allowed imperialist relationships to be recast in the terms of international development.
‘These changing relationships, accelerating urbanisation and a newly rich sector of the middle-class enabled the reproduction of the Western art-world system in parts of South-East Asia and (more briefly) Latin America. In Europe and the US, an increasingly asymmetric distribution of wealth fuelled an expansion both of the commercial art market and of art as a leisure industry, while the altered terms of economic competition, allied to the emergence of the Internet, produced an emphasis on so-called creative capital and intellectual property, the accelerated incorporation of creativity into the capitalist production mechanism and property regime. In Britain the rave-music scene and the free-party culture that surrounded it perhaps came closest to capturing the conflicting currents at work. On the one hand, it represented the definitive end of the 60s alternative in a commodified Summer of Love, and a final battle over rights to common land and free assembly that ended in the criminalisation and dispersal of the anarchist counter-culture. On the other, it marked a moment at which selforganisation, politicised hedonism and a defiantly proletarian grassroots culture become mass phenomena. Responding in different terms, the art world in the West shaped itself around the overheating financial markets; public museums and galleries reinvented themselves in the language of economic regeneration and cultural industry, the latter a term of abuse invented by Adorno in the 1960s that became a goal of national economics thirty years later.’
‘At the same time, other strands of practice, including many proposed or developed during the 60s and early 70s, were finding expression outside the formal art system. The Internet offered a new field of operation in which the modernist sphere of art could not be replicated, and which enabled new modes of organisation, knowledge production and distribution. The counter-cultural opposition to capitalism, freed in its moment of ostensible defeat from the dead weight of Soviet totalitarianism, was reinvented as pluralist and heterogeneous. The scattered nature of the radical diaspora became a cause for celebration rather than despair, and the ‘movement of movements’ found room for many who, like the feminists and the most radical of the ‘68 groups, rejected vanguardist organisation in favour of immediate and specific action, building the structure of the new world in the shell of the old. This broad aim necessarily has a cultural dimension, and the return of ideas of collectivism, internationalism and networked organisation led to revivals of older cultural experiments, such as street theatre, co-operative print workshops or free universities, as well as new preoccupations centred around the hardware, software and intellectual property battles of the online world.
‘A field of practice now exists in which visual production, media activism, political theory, research and protest combine with the search for uncommodified pleasure, viable forms of counter-organisation and a rethinking of property relations.’
‘A renewal of the sphere of art as a sphere of free expression and experimentation has appealing echoes of modernist principles, a space that allows the impossible dream of a life outside of capitalism. However it is unlikely that the mainstream institutions of art will be politically or culturally able to transform themselves in the ways that current activist practice might propose. Indeed it seems more probable that even the present accommodation will be short-lived, as neo-liberal policies continue to bring public institutions into the embrace of the market.
‘The institutions of the Western art world have proven both flexible enough to accommodate every formal challenge and resilient enough to resist every structural attack; in this they reflect the characteristics of the economic and political system that supports them. What has changed in recent decades is that formal or aesthetic criteria are no longer sufficient, in fact no longer viable, as a basis for describing the manifest sphere of art.’