The art world, like a planet, is shaped by opposing forces of inward and outward pressure. At its core is art, which produces nuance and potentiality under conditions of resistance to contextual norms varying in ideological, ontological, and historical degree. A quick scan of recent events reveals a critical imbalance in this relationship. Applying Rauschenberg’s theory that art operates in 40-year cycles,¹ we can track a general art-world shaping since 1983, figuring neoliberalism as its primary external force. What could describe the atmosphere for art post-1983 better than Reaganomics and Thatcherism?
Executed just one year prior, Agnes Denes’ iconic 1982 work Wheatfield—A Confrontation emerges in rear-view as a vestige of a time where ‘everything seemed possible,’² that is, harking back to the countercultural zeal of 1960s and 70s art, which embodied a fervent social progressiveness. Notwithstanding its amplified pertinence amidst current social and ecological crises, it seems unfathomable that Wheatfield could be made today—a work for which Denes planted two acres of wheat on 4.5 billion dollars’ worth of undeveloped land in New York city before harvesting grains to send around the world in an attempt to ease hunger.
So, what’s changed?
Despite the exponential growth in numbers of artists, galleries, festivals, residencies, degrees and funding bodies over the past four decades, art’s assertive resistance is dwindling in the same conditions that have galvanised its ostensible support networks, which have become increasingly and incompatibly risk averse. Put simply, more resourcing means more answerability. Though art like Denes’s was not easily accommodated in its day, since neoliberalism’s burgeoning we find such gestures more often sublimated into pure style. Now the means of art production are metricised and commodified, leading in many instances to oversimplifications of its ‘products’. Artists still make work responding to important issues, but under growing threat of financial and visibility repercussions. Since October 7, Artforum sacked its editor-in-chief; Ai Weiwei has had several exhibitions cancelled; the entire documenta selection committee has resigned, and Mike Parr was dumped by his gallerist of 36 years—all as a result of attempts by art’s core to address the war in Gaza.
Rosalind Krauss diagnosed this problem in her cogent 1990 essay ‘The Cultural Logic of the Late Capitalist Museum.’ As Claire Bishop sharply summarises, art institutions in this context have been reshaped into ‘populist temples of leisure and entertainment’.³ Dave Hickey similarly credits art’s increasing passivity to supply-side economics,⁴ while Mark C. Taylor has mapped this entanglement in the parallel dematerialisations in art (minimalism to conceptualism) and the economy (capital to finance).⁵ Uniting these theories is a critique of the co-dependent relationship between art and trickle-down economics. Indeed, neoliberal capitalism has achieved its fundamental aim of confusing market freedom with egalitarianism. Vulnerable to these conditions, art’s core has acquiesced. We see it, perhaps most nefariously, through the guise of identity politics, a framework with Black feminist lesbian roots,⁶ which has been appropriated to more closely resemble Foucault’s critique of care as control.
Thus, for me, the biggest challenges facing artists—without whom there is no art core—can be summarised in the following questions: Is it possible to benefit from and resist a system concurrently, like Jens Haaning’s Take the Money and Run famously failed to do in 2021? Will people turn to art for provocation or placation? And, following Francis Alÿs’ apt 2004 video performance The Green Line, who will draw the boundaries that continue to shape the art world?
¹ Dave Hickey made this point in a lecture, ‘The God Ennui,’ at the School of Visual Arts, New York, 28 May 2021, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l0x5IDjQLNs.
² I borrow this phrase from Richard Cork, Everything Seemed Possible: Art in the 1970s, London: Yale University Press, London, 2003.
³ Claire Bishop, Radical Museology, or, What’s ‘Contemporary’ in Museums of Contemporary Art? Koenig Books, London, 2013, p. 5.
⁴ Dave Hickey, op. cit.
⁵ Mark C. Taylor, ‘Skinning Art’ in Singular Forms (Sometimes Repeated): Art from 1951 to the Present, Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2004.
⁶ The Combahee River Collective, ‘The Combahee River Collective Statement,’ copyright © 1978 by Zillah Eisenstein.
James Gatt is currently Curator at Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery.