Buying Culture

The culture sector's rapid rise in significance isn't just the wishful thinking on the part of New Labour spin doctors, nor is corporate backing of the arts just a bright idea dreamt up by desperate branding execs. Rather, the growth of the arts and culture sector, both actually and symbolically, is driven by two convergent but distinct dynamics. To paraphrase Deep Throat, Anthony Davies and Simon Ford are so preoccupied with 'following the money’, that they lose sight of the big picture.

On one hand, the legacy of identity and cultural politics since the 60s has been to exaggerate the potential that cultural intervention has in transforming society. While this was conducted against a background of social strife where workers and employers disputed their share of the surplus, cultural politics could still appear as the individual subject's liberational adjunct to a greater project of social emancipation. But as the reality of class conflict has faded, the politics of identity and its terrain- the scene of culture  have come to dominate the mainstream consensus. In both the feminist and black rights movements, the calls for material equality in employment, education and social opportunity has increasingly given way to an ideological celebration of difference. Formerly radical ideas have survived, to be welcomed into the mainstream, but at the cost of their socially transformative content[1].

With the steady disappearance of identities based on relations of production (class), identity now resides ever more totally in the sphere of consumption; that is, what hairstyle you have, whether you wear silver trousers, who your favourite an collective is, whether you drink in Hoxton etc etc. Culture is now everywhere, and everything, for everybody[2]. But mainstream culture's radical ancestry means that card-carrying 'cultural workers' like Dave Beech can endlessly delude themselves about the revolutionary potential of their activity, while being blind to the fact that they are operating in an expanded field whose expansion is based on a subjectivised and individuated understanding of emancipation. The pursuit of the politics of the personal happens in an era of social peace in which relations of production are less contested than at any time this century, and in which the question of production has become so naturalised as to become invisible.

But the expansion of the culture industry is related to production in another, more direct way. The past 20 years has seen a steady decline in productive investment in the West to the point where the markets are now awash with uninvested capital. Recent years have seen the staggering growth of the financial sector, of ever increasing shareholder dividends and the tendency towards mega mergers, all of which attest to Capital's reluctance to invest in further production, preferring gambling and consolidation to creating new productive capacity. With so much spare cash around it is inevitable that spending on luxury consumption will increase. The new corporate taste for buying culture is one of the by-products of low levels of industrial growth.

That the art market’s fortunes are bound up with how much excess cash the elite has in its pocket is an old story. But Today's scenario is particular in that as politics is increasingly defined within the narrow limits of personal identity, and as identity becomes more of a question of being than doing, of consuming rather than producing, the business of satisfying this growth market becomes increasingly attractive.

With the kind of money being poured into the culture industry, it is not exactly surprising that the structures and networks that it underpins should expand and develop accordingly to absorb it. But although Ford and Davies' 'culturepreneur' should be seen as nothing more exciting than a newly emerging managerial layer, it is important to understand that their cross sector activity can only occur when the hierarchies of cultural significance that previously separated cultural sectors start to merge and flatten out. Ford and Davies make the mistake of seeing the economic emergence of their 'culturepreneur' as a cause of the death of the Avant Garde, rather than its symptom. They can only do this because they fail to notice that along with the death of the Avant Garde, the relativisation and fragmentation of culture has also mortally wounded the authority of high culture. The Ford/Davies obsession with the detail of structural change leaves them blind to the wider ideological shifts that have contributed to the present meaninglessness of terms such as 'high' and 'low' culture.

But it is precisely because culture is now whatever you want it (and yourself) to be that culture can be so easily embraced by the corporate sector. This corporate commodification of culture is the logical consequence of a society that already agrees that cultural consumption is an adequate site for the realisation of identity. While the ruling class may have lost faith in the superiority of their own culture, and the desire to impose their own sense of standards, the simultaneous elevation and relativisation of the cultural sphere means that although no agenda now dominates, culture is left with only a no agenda agenda, an undifferentiated melting pot of narcissistic variations on a theme in which being rich is just one of the many identities available, off the peg.

Whether critical autonomy now lies within the economic structures and cross sector games played by culturepreneurs remains to be seen. It is certain though that without a substantive account of the current status of culture within society, and an agenda which seeks to assess the objective value of contemporaneous forms of culture, rather than the relativist laissez faire that currently dominates, our erstwhile Woodward and Bernstein's culturepreneur will only ever exist in parasitic relationship to a cultural industry whose all embracing non agenda and surplus capacity can all too easily tolerate parasites. Whilst other models of critical autonomy may well be obsolete, those that follow will have to do more than vacuously reiterate the problematic conditions in which they function.


[1] I draw substantially on James Heartfield's excellent investigation of the subject, Need and Desire in the Post Material Economy; School of Cultural Studies, Sheffield Hallam University Press, 1998.

[2] This consumer's eye view of identity is now so normal that a Time Out restaurant reviewer recently described the clientele of a fashionable London eatery as the 'designer combat trouser/Manhattan back pack/teeny weeny Nokia phone set' (Time Out Feb 24 1999).


Published in Art Monthly no 225 April 1999 back to top


all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated