Selling Out?: The Neoliberalism of the Art World and Academia

This panel addresses the structural racism, classism, and sexism of the art complex and the university, which are premiere sites for the development of neoliberalism but also, arguably, primary structures allowing for obscuring its mechanisms through cultural forms. Generally speaking professors and those active in various roles in the art world (or the “art complex”) in the West today see ourselves as progressives or, at the very least, liberal. But most of us do not fully acknowledge the cost of our participation in institutions such as museums and universities that are now structurally neoliberal. Based on the original liberalism of the eighteenth century, with its conflicted values—for example promoting individual “freedom” while sanctioning the enslavement of Africans towards economic gain for a small group of white property-owning men—our current neoliberal regime is comprised of a contradictory set of beliefs and forces. Championing innovation and creativity, Silicon Valley industries bust unions and exploit workers; obsessively foregrounding enlightenment values of fairness and open-mindedness, universities increasingly exploit and demoralize their faculty, staff, and students; valuing creative genius, museums follow trends in a knee-jerk way rather than taking risks; museums and universities tout Enlightenment values of learning and creativity while relying on collectors and trustees whose fortunes rely on dark money obtained from death-dealing activities often pointed against the very people they claim to be opening their agendas to embrace. We welcome proposals that explore general or specific aspects of these structures.

Session Convenors:

Amelia Jones, University of Southern California, USA

Benjamin Ross Nicholson, Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design, USA


Hilary Robinson, Loughborough University, UK

Recovering Dean: Four Vignettes and an Argument

How can we be in the institution in order to change the institution? In particular, the institution of the art school in the neoliberal university? How can we resist neoliberal subjectification?

I present this paper as someone, first in family to go to university, now in my 60s, who has had full-time permanent positions in four universities. They are in turn: a plate-glass university in Northern Ireland; a top-25 American university; a post-’92 in London; and now a top-10 university, a plate-glass in the Midlands. In one I became Head of School; in two others I was appointed as Dean. The vignettes are based upon my experiences. They explore: pedagogical environments; practices of tokenism; the undermining of progressive institutional traditions; enactments of assimilation.

Holding that the personal still is political, I will use these vignettes to illuminate aspects of the transfer of the University and its art schools from institutions based on C19th exclusionary structures and practices, to their present neoliberal manifestations. I will argue that neoliberal Universities measure ‘Equality, Diversity and Inclusion’ as KPI success by how people previously excluded now assimilate. Meanwhile, foundational exclusionary structures and values remain unchanged. I argue that today’s neoliberal practices are a betrayal and curtailing of the socialist, feminist, decolonial and anti-racist belief in the power of, and right to, education; and of related struggles for voice, agency, and cultural integrity. Further, I will ask if, and how, and where, structural change can be made.

Lauren Barnes, University of Toronto, Canada

DEAI to Decolonization: Culture in the Neoliberal Art Museum

Part of the liberal inheritance of contemporary neoliberalism is an insidious idea of cultural difference constituted by, and for the benefit of, modern European Imperialism. Within this framework, “culture” emerged as a tool to establish hierarchical relationships between peoples, and even as anthropologists sought to apply it to resist racial essentialism, it has come to perform the same essentializing work as “race” in the perpetuation of white supremacist structures (Michel-Rolph Trouillot, “Adieu, Culture”). Neoliberal understandings of the concept of “culture” play out across the contemporary art complex, notably in museums of modern and contemporary art, where framings of multiculturalist humanism and Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA) initiatives drive programming strategies – even as they purport to be embracing decolonial critique.

Al Hoyos-Twomey, Newcastle University, UK

Downtown? NYU’s Downtown Collection and the Gentrification of Lower Manhattan

The Downtown Collection at New York University’s Fales Library and Special Collections documents the art, music, and literary scenes that developed in SoHo and the Lower East Side between the mid 1970s and the early 1990s. Reflecting both the interdisciplinary, collaborative nature of Downtown cultural production, and the urgency of the archive’s formation at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in 1994, the Downtown Collection has been celebrated for expanding traditional collecting and documentation methodologies, enlarging the established canon of late twentieth century U.S. art and literature, and legitimising scholarship on a previously overlooked period in art history.

This paper argues that at the same time as the Downtown Collection has sought to comprehensively document the full range of Downtown practices and outputs, it has established its own exclusionary canon by collecting relatively few manuscripts and personal papers of women artists and even fewer belonging to artists of colour. Moreover, it argues that not only does this exclusion mirror the process of cultural and material dispossession that accompanied the gentrification of much of Lower Manhattan in the late twentieth century, but it is echoed in the expansion of NYU, the collection’s institutional home, which has long been implicated in the displacement of Downtown’s most marginalised communities through the near-constant purchase of land and property surrounding Washington Square Park. Ultimately, this paper insists that the complex forms of knowledge production facilitated by the Downtown Collection are inseparable from the exclusionary material infrastructure of the university that underpin it.

Alexey Ulko, Association of Art Critics, Uzbekistan

Neoliberalism as a Socialist Heritage and a Cargo Cult: The Case of North Eurasia

Neoliberalism, with its internally contradictory premises, is often exclusively associated with the global North. However, it has also permeated various other regions across the globe. Some regimes in these regions have enthusiastically embraced neoliberalism to pursue their own oppressive goals, often under the guise of anti-colonial rhetoric (as best exemplified by China’s and Russia’s recent international policies).

My paper explores how art institutions in North Eurasia (a pseudo-neutral geographical term used to replace the politically vested ‘post-Soviet countries’) adopt and adapt neoliberal structures. I argue that: 1) neoliberal power structures and colonial practices extend beyond European or North American art institutions to North Eurasia; 2) the tension between liberal values and oppressive practices persists, with ‘Western’ values (e.g. innovation, free market, tolerance) often supplanted by ‘Socialist’ rhetoric (harmony, consensus, communal values, state as a patron); 3) instances of direct borrowing of neoliberal practices, such as running an art institution like a corporate business, are imitations of the West, akin to a cargo cult.

I will give a short overview of such practices in Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and will analyse three case studies: 1) the role and activities of the Moscow-based Museum of contemporary art Garage; 2) the national pavilions of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan at the Venice Biennial; 3) the colonial interaction between the Russian curators and artists ‘relocated’ to Central Asia and the local art institutions. 

In all these cases, I will show how the mix between the opposition to Western neoconservative society and practices directly borrowed from it has been used to mask exploitative practices that have a direct effect on the artists.

Angeliki Roussou, University of Manchester, UK

Labour and Expanding the Right to Work: Postmigration, Gender, and the Neoliberal Contemporary Art World

This paper will examine crossovers between forced displacement, restrictions to the right to work, and contemporary art in postmigrant contexts of the Global North. It will partly focus on the ethics of artistic collaborations between non-displaced artists and displaced participants, typically deprived of the right to work (e.g., asylum seekers and undocumented migrants). The paper will also discuss artistic production and labour engaged in gendered struggles around the decriminalisation of sex work and its recognition as work, for example, the film Workers! (2016) by Swedish artist Petra Bauer and the sex-worker led organisation Scot-Pep, initiated by the art gallery Collective with the University of Edinburgh as research partner. These questions will be linked to struggles around Care Worker visas and ensuing conditions of forced labour or modern slavery. The latter analysis will use the example of the UK-based migrant-worker-led organisation Voices of Domestic Workers, which some contemporary artists and prestigious London art galleries (the Showroom, Cubitt) have upheld and collaborated with since the mid-2010s. The overall aim of the paper is to trace the complex role of art institutions (art spaces, galleries, or museums) operating within neoliberalism in recognising and valorising (artistic) labour, knowledge, and expertise, in contexts where exploitative (and forced) gendered labour is yet to be officially recognised and remunerated.

Vanessa Parent, Concordia University, Canada

Lonzi at Dior: Conceptual Art, Neoliberalism and the Commodification of Dissent

In March 2020, during Milan Fashion week, Dior launched its Fall collection featuring installations by feminist collective artist Claire Fontaine (CF). LED signs reading “Consent” and “Patriarchy=Repression” hung from the ceiling as models strutted down the runway below. Notably, a sign reading “We are All Clitoridian Women” directly referenced the Italian separatist feminist Carla Lonzi, a former art critic who co- founded Rivolta Femminile in 1970. Lonzi explicitly advocated for total separation from patriarchal spheres of influence, including the art world. Lonzi’s separatist thought has greatly informed CF, who is notoriously critical of neoliberal economic policies and their wider social, political, and cultural impacts. Her collaboration with a luxury fashion house, therefore, demands critical reflection, especially considering CF’s theory of the human strike, which proposes desubjectivization—a form of total refusal—as a means to counter our complicity with oppression under neoliberalism. As a feminist art historian interested in the reproduction of dominant power structures through their subsumption of dissenting forces, this collaboration is of great interest to me.

Anchored in the aforementioned case study and bringing in my experience as a member of academia’s ‘precariat’ class as a backdrop, the proposed paper will interrogate neoliberalism’s corrosive capacity to commodify everything — even dissent, exemplified by CF’s appropriation of separatist feminist theory in a collaboration with an industry known for its objectification of women. In doing so, it will question whether art and academia are today adequate spheres for criticism, especially in light of art’s cooptation and academia’s increased reliance on an underclass of contract workers.

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