Freeing the arts from the yoke of neoliberalism

A pervasive ideology has encouraged us to see individuals, not a society; to think of competition as natural and emphasise growth at all costs. What damage has this done to creativity?

Image via Shutterstock

We live in a market-driven world of winners and losers, where competition is expected and encouraged and democratic choice is best expressed through purchasing power rather than the ballot box. A world of deregulation and privatisation, where individual responsibility triumphs over community and collective action – this is the world of neoliberalism.

Like anarchism or communism, neoliberalism is a political ideology – one that has become increasingly influential in affluent western societies like Australia, the USA and UK since the 1970s and 80s.  

‘Neoliberalism – sometimes called in Australia “economic rationalism” or “market liberalism” – is really a political belief system that says the way that governments should approach public policy is to deregulate marketplaces, to privatise government services, and to free up the workings of the economy to allow firms and individuals to compete on a level playing field … It very much downplays the role of collective identities and activities and is focused on the individual,’ explains Dr Ben Eltham, Lecturer in Media and Communications at Monash University’s School of Media, Film and Journalism and a well-known commentator on Australian cultural policy.

But what’s neoliberalism got to do with the arts? As it happens, quite a lot.

From festivals, which are seemingly more focused on increasing ticket sales and tourism numbers than on the wellbeing of the artists who participate in them, to claims that there will always be winners and losers in the arts, the influence of neoliberalism is widespread in the sector.  

‘The idea that there will inevitably be winners and losers and that if you’re a loser then it’s just the luck of the draw, or the fact that your show’s not good – that’s almost the perfect form of internalised neoliberalism,’ said Eltham.

‘Economists have been pointing out for 30 years or more that the arts and sports are incredibly unequal – they have a couple of superstars and then vast armies of under-employed, casualised, freelance creative people. And of course this not a level playing field – it is by definition anything but a level playing field, because the way that the arts and culture works is that it tends to reward those who are already successful but erects tremendous barriers in front of people who are obscure.’

As Scott Rankin, co-founder, CEO, and Creative Director of Big hART observes, separating the arts from the everyday has made it vulnerable to market forces.

‘We have tended in the last 200 years to claim the creative journey towards the sublime for one particular subset of people, and that is artists. So we’ve separated art from craft, and then we’ve begun to see the arts as a new form of the religious journey. We’ve also used it as part of the bread and circuses economies, and that’s brought us to a position where we have swallowed the language of markets and industry for some years, for something that is in actual fact about the whole of life,’ he said.

Another way that neoliberalism has impacted on the arts can be seen in the sector’s emphasis on ticket sales and audience growth as a sign of success, Eltham explained.

‘This focus on always increasing the metrics, increasing the numbers, has been something that’s come to the arts via neoliberalism. And I would argue that the way governments deal with cultural policy in Australia and indeed in most Western countries is now absolutely fetishising the metrics – and so there’s a lot of pressure on arts administrators now to always increase their metrics, always increase the number of people coming through the door, and to treat their organisations like businesses,’ he said.

‘So they now have to record surpluses for instance, and you also see it in the way that they’re managed: they have Boards of Directors now, and often those boards are made up of corporate figures. When you look at those boards there’s plenty of accountants, there’s plenty of captains of industry, chief executives, things like that, but there’s very few actual artists, you know? Sculptors, playwrights, filmmakers, poets – you don’t see too many of them on the boards of major galleries, institutions, museums, festivals.’

An omnipresent ideology

It’s hardly surprising that neoliberalism has impacted on the arts, according to Emma Webb, Artistic Director of Port Adelaide-based company, Vitalstatistix.

‘It’s such a dominant ideology, to the point that it almost is omnipresent. It’s the dominant ideology of our times and so you would expect that there’s not going to be any sectors of society that completely sit outside of its influence,’ she said.

That said, there are many artists who reject its values, Webb continued.

‘I think there are some individual artists who, while of course absolutely affected by capitalism and usually poor … are contributing to society and to the broader culture in general – that broad project of making the world a better place and a better place to live in.

‘I think there are lots of artists who are really deeply committed to that, in the same way that you would say teachers are, and health workers are, and people who work in these fields of social good. I think that’s why the arts have been under attack – they are a threat to neoliberalism because those sectors, like health and education and science, really challenge market ideology,’ she said.

Webb points to the actions of former federal Minister for the Arts George Brandis as a prime example of neoliberal ideology at play.

‘The way he was describing why he was carving off a section of the Australia Council to set up Catalyst – even though it’s their own government department – saying, “we’re going to establish Catalyst as essentially in competition with our own statutory authority.”

‘That’s really the way he worded it in the beginning, if you recall. And similarly his obsession with audiences – the idea that the way people exercise choice is through their spending, and really the only democratic way to fund or think about the arts is through audience choices – it really did strike me that that was classic neoliberalism,’ said Webb.

Impact on the visual arts

The visual arts are another field where neoliberalism has made significant inroads, according to artist and cultural activist Ian Milliss.

‘It’s bemusing that Australia, lagging again in its usual colonial way, is only now enacting some of the most typical neoliberal cultural interventions exactly as neoliberalism is beginning its decline,’ he told ArtsHub.

‘The two most typical are closing down art schools on one hand while on the other hand inflating venue institutions. The UWS art school was closed down some years ago despite or perhaps because it was the most innovative in Sydney. Sydney College of the Arts (SCA) is losing its premises and most of its staff in a process that is probably designed to kill it off later when fewer people care. Its site will no doubt be turned over to property developers, a fate that possibly also awaits The National Art School (NAS), which is in the unenviable position of having a historic central Sydney location coveted by both developers and the tourism industry who in NSW will always, always get what they want.

‘Meanwhile the AGNSW is to be bloated into a wedding, function, food and entertainment venue for the tourist industry. The art will become little more than a marketing drawcard, decorating those walls which don’t have harbour views,’ he said.

Ironically, such institutions created the seeds of this situation for themselves, by reshaping themselves along neoliberal business models back in the 1980s, Milliss believes.

‘Faced with the uncomfortable radical implications of conceptual art and its logic of direct involvement in daily life, institutions worldwide began a program of radical conservatism to shore up their existing position. Rejecting community engagement they began supporting and commissioning forms of art that generated content for their business model of exhibition,’ he said.

Such institutions also embraced Key Performance Indicators that emphasised mass audiences rather than the collection and conservation of cultural material.

‘This shift into the tourist and entertainment industries, using venue architecture, large scale events like the biennales and blockbuster exhibitions, occurred as public funding was cut and they became increasingly dependent on sponsorship on one hand and artists willing to provide work for free or at least below cost,’ said Milliss.

‘Meanwhile the traditional life of the artist, which has long been low paid, precarious, freelance employment without entitlements or security has turned out to foreshadow the life of most specialised workers under neoliberalism, journalism now being a good example.’

Can we turn the tide?

Social commentators such as Guy Rundle in the latest issue of The Saturday Paper have begun to herald neoliberalism’s demise. Can the arts help hurry it along?

‘The key is in rethinking what we as artists are doing,’ said Milliss. ‘There is no outside to neoliberalism, all responses must exist within its framework of decline. If you believe the end product of our activity is manufacturing content for the art industry then you will sink with that particular business model. There will be ongoing growth and competition but the cultural significance of the product will decline to almost nothing – think of an art world with little more value than telemarketing channels on television.

‘On the other hand, if you think of our activity as generating constant adaptive cultural change then we are free to produce anything, use any media from policy proposals to farming, painting to big data. The criteria becomes cultural significance rather than financial performance inside an exhibition and event based business model. Even the Australia Council has started to recognise this in awarding their 2015 Emerging and Experimental Arts Creative Fellowship to Lucas Ihlein, a leading social practice artist who rarely exhibits in conventional venues,’ he said.

Webb stressed the value of collective action in undermining the worst aspects of neoliberalism, comparing the difference between one facet of the wellbeing movement – often focused on how individuals can transform themselves into happier and more productive workers – versus campaigns focused on collective wellbeing.

‘On the one hand you’ve got these almost evangelical, self-help and business skills [courses] that focus on artists being self-motivated individuals, being enterprising. On the other hand, one of the things I think has been really great in the last little while is there’s been this collective mental health campaign, that’s come through the MEAA (Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance) obviously and other organisations, but also through the self-organising of artists,’ said Webb.

‘I know in Adelaide there’s a big group of artists that have just been getting together and collectively providing support for each other, but also kind of thinking through questions like: how do we support better mental health in the sector? Those two things come from a kind of similar place but they’re really different ways of approaching how to be okay in the world as an artist.’

She also stressed the importance of working with colleagues outside the arts sector.

‘I think people in the arts who might be interested in challenging neoliberalism need to connect to other fields, and with work that is happening such as campaigns for a universal basic income or campaigns around public education or public housing, or not attacking people who are on social security,’ Webb said.

This idea of working with peers outside the sector, especially on campaigns focused around social justice, strongly resonates with Rankin.

‘There is something desperately wrong when these big flagship companies like the STC (Sydney Theatre Company) and the Sydney Festival for instance, the Opera House and the MCA (Museum Contemporary Art) can be sitting right on one of the biggest battles currently in Australia – and that is public housing in Sydney – and they are saying nothing and doing nothing. They’re just sitting there attracting their tourists. It’s a crying shame,’ Rankin said.

Focusing on the aesthetic, cultural and transcendent values of art will help to encourage the next generation of practitioners further divest themselves from the neoliberal model, Rankin believes.

‘If we look at the vast body of creativity and what is happening every day from the second we wake up – we get up and we have a cup of coffee from our favourite mug; we listen to a radiophonic work coming via the ABC; we go onto ArtsHub and see what a literary genius has just written; we touch a favourite handmade carpet – we begin a whole process that is cultural every day,’ he said.

‘The best point to begin is to say the number one question, the first question that an artist utters should not be about funding – and that the funded moment, the business moment, the way in which you want a transaction with an audience to involve money, is only one small part of cultural activity.

‘We’ve got to encourage younger artists to get out of that kind of feedback loop and think more broadly about the question: how does every aspect of the community engage with the arts? And therefore, how do we release funding for creative activity out of the whole of life and the whole of government and the whole of the corporate world? Suddenly that’s a very different equation,’ Rankin explained.

He also stressed the importance of connecting artists with the broader community – of breaking out of the familiar world of gallery openings, feedback from peers, and funding cycles.

‘In suburbs around the country, in ugly areas of the justice system, in the health industries in Central Australia, there are vast areas in which artists can work in deeply satisfying ways in communities who have a craving, a need for cultural and creative practice because their cultural rights have so long been dismissed by agencies like the Australia Council.

‘There is so much to do and so much potential to fund it in all kinds of unusual ways, and yet we are trained to think about these dried up teats that are the arts funding bodies,’ Rankin said.

Funding of a different kind is on Milliss’ mind.

‘One further critical element is the need for universal basic income, not only for artists but for the whole community as jobs are rapidly displaced by computerisation and robots. This is inevitable, although its actual form may be highly contested. Nonetheless it will effectively be like arts funding for all in a world of ubiquitous cultural production – although discussing that would be a whole essay in itself,’ he concluded.

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM, and serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Living Legend in 2017. In 2020 he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize. Most recently, Richard was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Green Room Awards Association in June 2021. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts