Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.


The new politics of art

Nina Power calls for an assertion of true human wealth through shared resources, knowledge, and art – while Jessie Hoskin and Sasha Josette explain how The World Transformed festival will respond to this call

November 16, 2016
7 min read

technicolourTechnicolour nightmare: John Wilkinson

Nina Power

How do we measure the value of things that, at first glance, seem resistant to quantification? In the economisation of all life, capitalism seeks to make measurable what was formerly without limit, and to put a value on things that once seemed free. ‘Wealth’ thus becomes the profit made from enclosure, exploitation and capture, whether it be of land, labour or any other human capacity.

But this definition of wealth is profoundly limited, as it does not truly value the content and the quality of ‘wealth’ itself. As William Morris put it in 1885:

‘The sunlight, the fresh air, the unspoiled face of the earth, food, raiment and housing necessary and decent; the storing up of knowledge of all kinds, and the power of disseminating it; means of free communication between man and man; works of art, the beauty which man creates when he is most a man, most aspiring and thoughtful – all things which serve the pleasure of people, free, manly, and uncorrupted. This is wealth.’

We would be naive to imagine that art, human creation and knowledge production have some kind of inherent resistance to their commodification. As we have increasingly seen, universities are now regarded as profit-making machines rather than seats of learning for its own sake; and ‘free communication’ is directly monetised online, while the art world is an enormous financial market and source of investment, rather than a site of beauty and humanity. Those starting at the bottom in the art world are particularly exploited in the form of student fees, internships and poorly‑paid or unpaid commissions.

What possible role, then, can art play in regard to this impoverished definition of wealth?

Art can serve as a critical force; it can be a site of utopian post-capitalist experimentation, even if it cannot completely escape the narrow game of exchange. Art, knowledge and communication must be defended as ideals, as true wealth, even at moments when this is very hard to do. The ideas represented by these very human modes of activity always point to something beyond the cold, hard limitations of the profit margin, something extraterritorial to what prevails.

The capitalist knows profit can be extracted from this richer human wealth, but he cannot always capture its promise, at least not forever. It is incumbent on those able to recognise what Morris means to fight indefatigably for the name of this true wealth – shared resources, shared knowledge, shared art.

Jessie Hoskin and Sasha Josette

Untitled-1As curators for The World Transformed festival, our challenge was to give artists and art collectives the opportunity and space to create socially engaged work without compromise to concept, aesthetics or individualism. Many artists came forward to commit themselves to changing the current political narrative through their work. There was a space at the festival for them and others to collaborate consciously – agitating and re-imagining the future of art and politics – and explore the extraterritoriality of true human wealth.

Artist Dryden Goodwin (who has exhibited at the Tate, the National Portrait Gallery, and Venice Biennale among others) presented his piece ‘Breathe’ (above) – a moving image of his son, which attempts to give a perspective on the challenges we face, not only as artists but also as custodians of the environment.

As Goodwin writes: ‘There are multiple challenges in this increasingly changing world. There seems to be a gathering sense of disruption and destabilisation. The expression and reflection of writers, artists, filmmakers and speakers contribute to a sense of urgency and a need to focus our attention and collectively react . . . The arts can present a resilient, flexible, free-thinking, unfettered arena where creativity enables and self-expression is given its platform.

‘In times of crisis, austerity, isolationism, conflict, atrocity and blinkered attitudes, the arts can push against the tide and help to redirect it. The essential role in society of the arts is frequently undervalued and placed in jeopardy through dwindling support, strident cuts and dubious political priorities. In the current climate the arts are consistently portrayed as an aside or a luxury; most alarmingly, the proven transformative effect of keeping the arts at the heart of education is under-appreciated and even legislated against.’

A recent survey by the Artists’ Union England showed that while 75 per cent of its members have exhibited work, only 33 per cent have been publicly funded when doing so. Artists are predominantly exhibiting their work privately and unpaid, with many responding that they work more than 40 hours a week, half of which is spent doing administrative work. The union says that a third of its members live on less than £10,000 a year. They depend on part-time jobs, family support or benefits to see them through.

In the wake of successive government cuts to arts funding, along with cuts to benefits, and a sharp rise in housing and studio costs, the financial viability of the arts has been undermined. As one union member put it:

‘I think we will have to drop out of the system. The new universal credit states that it is the employee (self) who is responsible for making sure that they earn the same as a 37-hour-a-week minimum wage employee. I can’t guarantee that from week to week. Sometimes I earn well. Most of the rest of the time I barely earn enough to live. I’m worried that if I can’t make the money set out by the government they will force me into the back-to-work schemes or, more accurately, force me into servitude.’

In these political-economic conditions an old question imposes itself. Where, as artists, do we go from here – what is to be done? Is it the artist’s responsibility to intervene in politics? Or is artistic practice diluted when mediated by a prerequisite of political engagement?

Another contributing artist to The World Transformed, John Wilkinson (‘Fighting for Crumbs’ at the Red Shed, Wakefield), says that the ‘we could and would change the world’ conviction of the 1960s provided the optimistic political environment that also established the Red Shed as a venue.

Now the mood may be different, but a common essence remains: ‘We wanted to place an event that looked at the depressed and broken spirit that hangs over the 21st century. But if the work is of a dark nature, it shows that the will to create is testament to the refusal to “give up”. It isn’t pessimistic, even as what often informs it is severe dejection.’

Last summer, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn outlined his vision for a new policy for the arts. Corbyn recognises that, ‘Under the guise of a politically motivated austerity programme, this government has savaged arts funding, with projects increasingly required to justify their artistic and social contributions in the narrow, ruthlessly instrumentalist approach of the Thatcher government.’

Despite the successful collective power demonstrated by ‘Fighting for Crumbs’, and many British artists who continue tirelessly to produce work and contribute to social change with the immediacy of a visual narrative, let us not forget that these artists are still in fact mostly non-paid and this demands change.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced