Destructive Creativity: Art and Late Capitalism

Transcribed from the 1 September 2018 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:

As long as there has been a thing we call art, it has always been a plaything of the ruling class. What is different now is that the ruling class has changed.

Chuck Mertz: Art and money have had a long and sordid relationship, and arguably, art and capitalism need each other to survive. So what can we do to challenge the system in an era of art after money and money after art? Here to tell us, organizer and educator Max Haiven is author of Art After Money, Money After Art: Creative Strategies Against Financialization.

Welcome back to This is Hell!, Max.

Max Haiven: It’s great to be back.

CM: You write, “Money and Art as they exist under capitalism must be abolished, along with that economic system.”

What is wrong with art under capitalism? What does capitalism do to art?

MH: There are two aspects to that question, and two answers that I could give you. The first is that especially over the last twenty or thirty years of capitalism, in what we call the financialized phase, where finance capital and speculative money has risen to prominence in the capitalist economy, art itself has become financialized. There are a lot of firms and companies and individuals who are very interested in using art as a speculative asset, something that you invest in to get a higher return later. There’s very little concern for its aesthetic value, for its contribution to culture and society. Art, like everything else in our society, has been turned into a plaything of plutocrats.

But there’s a deeper problem here, too, which is that under capitalism, what we would talk about as a fundamental creative or imaginative impulse of our species has been progressively reoriented towards the generation of profit and towards corporate power.

All those expensive objects we see in big museums—those have become financial assets. But on a much more profound level, even on the level of daily life for most of us who don’t consider ourselves artists, our artistic impulses and our artistic skills and talents and passions have also been commodified, financialized, and instrumentalized.

CM: Is this financialization of art new? I am certain that I’m going to get an email from somebody who says this is no different than when the Medicis or the Borgias or the Catholic church were the biggest art patrons in the world.

How is the financialization of art anything new, anything different from what it was in the past? Hasn’t it always reflected what the people who have the most money want?

MH: Absolutely. As long as there has been a thing we call art (which is a very recent human invention—the creative impulse, of course, has been with us since we evolved into what we now understand to be humans), it has always been a plaything of the ruling class.

What has changed is that the ruling class has changed. In medieval and Renaissance Italy, the ruling class was a very tight group of religious, economic, and political elites who wanted art to do certain things for them. Specifically, they wanted it to glorify their worldview. They wanted art to tell a story about how their rule over the rest of society was legitimate, and they wanted it to ornament their mansions and houses that they had bought with their ill-gotten wealth.

The ruling class is very different today than it was in Renaissance Italy. Today, the ruling class is globalized. They make money not necessarily through mercantilist mechanisms or through exploiting peasantry (although that is still a part of the capitalist system), but they increasingly make money through speculation and through extraction, and through the exploitation of labor. This ruling class is much more cosmopolitan in its tastes and its desires, and what it wants from art is different. They’re not so much interested in conservative depictions of how wonderful the world is under their care; they’re more interested in provocative art, they’re interested in edgy art, they’re interested in art that pushes boundaries, because that is in fact what the ruling class today thinks they are doing. The financiers of Wall Street or the City of London or Shanghai or Frankfurt believe that, like artists, they are bringing their creativity into the world and manifesting their will, in this same romantic image that we have of artists.

The difference is, if an artist makes a mistake, you get an ugly canvass. When these capitalists make mistakes, you get global warming, nuclear war, and reactionary authoritarian governments.

CM: I mentioned earlier that you write about how money and art, as they exist under capitalism, must be abolished—and I asked what is wrong with art under capitalism. But conversely, what negative impact can art have on money?

MH: There are two ways of answering that question. One of them is the negative impact that is maybe not a good thing, and the second is a type of negative impact that is a good thing.

The negative impact of art on money is somewhat poetic. We have to go back to an earlier notion of art and the imagination from the Renaissance or early modern capitalism, when terms like art and imagination were not these lauded and celebrated ideas that they are today. They were actually seen as a form of deception. This idea of art as a deception and a danger to society goes back at least to Plato and arguably before.

Under capitalism, this idea might run now, there’s a little too much creativity in the capitalist economy. If you go around to Wall Street right now, you’re going to find rooms in Goldman Sachs and Bank of America where people with PhDs in astrophysics are sitting around figuring out how to create new derivative contracts, figuring out how to build high-frequency trading machines, basically trying to compete with other financiers to game the system as best they can. There’s a kind of artfulness within capitalism that is allowing this phenomenon we call financialization to run amok. Now, this speculative force, which is throwing money around the world and multiplying debt upon debt upon debt, is really skewing any way in which the prices of things, which is to say the actually monetary value of things, are connected to their underlying value.

You’re in Chicago. All around Chicago there are warehouses full of raw materials, including foodstuffs and things like aluminum, that are sitting there and may never be used, but the deeds to those resources are being traded multiple times on financial markets. On the one hand we can see that as a pathology of capitalism, but I prefer to see it as a way in which capitalism has mobilized imagination, mobilized a certain creativity, a certain artfulness, our incredible human capacity to create things that we imagine beforehand and put that towards the purposes of accumulating wealth for some.

Art holds a space open that has been foreclosed everywhere else in society. There are not a lot of spaces left in our society for collective exercises of the imagination, to think about the system that we live in, to think about the deeper questions of society .

That’s the bad side. The good side of how art can threaten or challenge capitalism is that fundamentally, art holds a space open for our imagination. It holds a space open that has been foreclosed everywhere else in society. There are not a lot of spaces left in our society to think about the system that we live in, to think about the deeper questions of society. The university, as we’ve spoken about in a previous interview, has been deeply, deeply commodified and financialized already. We no longer have a kind of media that is willing to ask deep and profound questions and challenge power. There are very few spaces left in society that bring our imaginations outside of the commodified and financialized realms that they’ve been habituated into by people who are basically trying to exploit or extort or extract value from us.

So even though art has in fact been highly commodified for its entire history—and now financialized in profound ways—there’s still something about the space that it holds open in our society that leaves room for collective exercises of the imagination, especially when artworks are experienced together and in public or are used as workshops in order to harness and enliven the imagination of social movements.

CM: Is the final goal of neoliberalism (whether it’s an intended goal or an unintended consequence) to close all of those areas, like art, wherein neoliberalism can be challenged? Is the idea to close those spaces of potential challenge?

MH: The problem with neoliberalism and financialization, which is different than other earlier moments of capitalism, is not that it’s trying to close down the imagination. Back in the nineteenth century, capitalists had no interest in the imagination of workers, and if workers’ imaginations became too grand and they thought they perhaps deserved not to starve—or that they deserved, for instance, to take over the means of production—that would be answered by brutal repressive force.

Today, in this moment of capitalism, because it’s so highly individualized and so highly based on individuals imagining themselves as competitive agents with one another, and so deeply invested in consumerism—neoliberal financialization as a system, if we can say it wants something, what it wants is for all of us to reorient our imagination and creativity towards participation within the system. So it doesn’t close down imagination or creativity. It would be more accurate to say that it puts it to work. It encourages each of us to put it to work in the name of our own individual economic survival.

What does this look like? In the realm of work, it looks like increasing encouragement for all of us, throughout our entire lives, even since childhood, to be cultivating a curriculum vitae that includes hobbies, passions, skills, and that when it comes time to offer this to the workplace, we should arrive able to sell our labor power—or our “human capital,” as it’s been reframed by neoliberal theology—as an asset to be rented by our boss.

The second way that works is on the level of everyday life. Some of us, like me, work in the cultural field. I am a teacher, so I am working with my imagination and with my mind. But everyone in this society, even if they’re doing manual labor, has had to become vastly more creative and imaginative just in terms of how to make ends meet in an era when real wages adjusted for inflation are dropping and corporate profits are skyrocketing.

CM: From your description earlier, it sounds like art is expanding the financial imagination under neoliberalism, yet one of the criticisms we’ve heard from a lot of analysts who have appeared on our show is that neoliberalism stagnates the political imagination.

So why, under neoliberalism, can art expand the financial imagination but is unable to expand the political imagination?

MH: That’s a good question. I would draw here on the late Mark Fisher’s notion of capitalist realism, which is the strange way in which, under this moment of neoliberalism, after the so-called “End of History” was announced by Francis Fukuyama in the early 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, there’s been a sense of absolute fatalism about capitalism. It’s here to stay, and all you can do is tinker around the edges or compete to survive within it. That is a fundamental foreclosure of the political imagination, because it says this system is unavoidable.

But I would say that after the 2008 financial crisis, that “End of History” ideology has been challenged. It’s been challenged from the left by social movements who are saying essentially that we need to have some version of socialism (which has always been the obvious answer on some level, although there are many different types of socialism one could propose). But unfortunately in the last two or three years we’ve also been made aware that this consensus has also been challenged from the right, which has propounded and is in the process of developing neofascism as its dominant ideology. That is still a capitalist ideology, ultimately, but like all forms of fascism it insists that the only way to save capitalism from its own pathologies is for a strong, centralized, usually ethno-nationalist or religious fundamentalist state to be the supreme arbiter and ultimate expression of force.

When your awful boss calls you in for the job interview at Subway, they want you to tell them that you’re passionate about making sandwiches, that you love the public, that you are using this job to improve your human capital so you can go on and have a great career and help society and all the rest, all the things you’re supposed to want under capitalism. But the reality is: they don’t care. They want a human body with a minimal amount of cognitive function to stand there assembling parts of a sandwich all day so that they can sell it for a profit and cultivate surplus value.

In this case we have a really horrific foreclosure of the political imagination, and this is where art becomes, in a weird way, so important. We need to remember our powers. The success of fascism is to insist that our powers only stem from our obedience to an authoritarian master. The success of capitalism as an ideology is to insist that our powers—our creative powers as individuals and as a society—can only be fully expressed in the competitive landscape of the market. Well, there are and there have been other alternatives. And in fact even just the experience of daily life shows us that our more creative, imaginative, and pleasurable moments come from collective experiences.

It’s not to discount the importance of individuals who are truly, incredibly gifted and can offer us great cultural treasures, whether it’s in music or visual arts, dance or performance or literature. But it is to say that for those things to become treasured, they become treasured collectively, and they only have resonance when they resonate with larger audiences who are there to witness and take them in and allow it to transform them.

CM: Does neoliberalism, then, make us all artists? That is, I know the precarious life—even prior to financialization, but also more recently, like in the 1990s—of artists. I know how difficult their life can be, how they are basically a one-person shop that is completely vertically integrated. They are their own distribution person, their own marketing person, they are the people who create the content, and they have to go out begging, essentially, trying to find work for themselves so they can sell their art, so they can sell their brand.

How much does financialization make us all this kind of free-agent artist?

MH: Almost twenty years ago, the English cultural studies scholar Angela McRobbie pointed out that artists were held up as, in her words, the “pioneers of the new economy,” really only against their will. That was precisely in a moment when governments were moving away from the central social-democratic (or let’s say Keynesian) economic planning of the postwar period, which was also accompanied by the de-industrialization of the global North and the movement of the exploitation of industrial labor to the global South. There was this rhetoric of creativity: “creative economies,” “creative cities,” the “creative class.” This really held up the figure of the artist—this romantic, no-strings-attached, free-wheeling arbitrageur of the self—as the icon that all workers were supposed to emulate. There was this lionization of the figure of the artist as someone who navigates the steels of capitalism without relying on a full-time permanent job, without relying on the paternalism of the nation-state and the welfare state.

That’s just grown and grown, and it’s been tied into the structural and cultural changes of financialization, such that all of these shows like The Voice or American Idol are about artists who invest a huge amount—in secret, usual—in their cultural capacities and cultural capital, in their skills and talents, and then go on the auction block (for lack of a better word) and try and get these bosses, essentially, to laud them and skyrocket them into fame and fortune.

But like those shows, the artistic field (like almost every other field of the economy, as we’re seeing now) is one where a large number of people compete for a very small number of opportunities, which allows some people to become superstars and earn money, have economic stability, and get glamour, fame, and recognition while the vast majority of people suffer in obscurity and end up being “sandwich artists,” which is what Subway restaurants have the audacity to call their exploited employees.

On the one hand, this idea of the artist as the pioneer of the new economy is absolutely true, and it’s become more true recently. The one way that I would challenge it is to say that the vast majority of workers today never get any opportunity to express their creativity and imagination, and any claims that they do are bogus. The “sandwich artist” is a good example. You can call this person an artist. You can talk about how when your awful boss calls you in for the job interview at Subway, they want you to tell them that you’re passionate about making sandwiches, that you love the public, that you are using this job to improve your human capital so you can go on and have a great career and help society and all the rest, all the things you’re supposed to want under capitalism. But the reality is: they don’t care. They want a human body with a minimal amount of cognitive function to stand there assembling parts of a sandwich all day so that they can sell it for a profit and cultivate surplus value.

So I want to insist that yes, of course this idea of the artist is still very dominant and very profound in the way that it’s trying to restructure our imaginations, to bring us into line with financialization and neoliberalism, but when we actually look at the reality of society, the vast majority of us are never going to get to express our creativity. We’re never going to get rewarded for it, and the best we can say about most people’s artistic activities under this system is that they help people stay alive and sane and retain some shred of humanity in very dehumanizing circumstances.

CM: As Rebecca Solnit pointed out in her book Hollow City back in 2000, artists are the “bohemian pioneers” who eventually end up gentrifying neighborhoods; here we’re talking about artists being the template for precarity and the type of job experience we now have under financialization.

How much does the creative class cause the problems of financialization? How much are members of the creative class agents of financialization and neoliberalism, whether they want to admit it, whether they realize it or not?

Financiers have been able to get away with extreme forms of noxious creativity in a moment when they’re no longer being regulated by the state, and also when social movements have been at a low point in their tide. Essentially, capitalists have no reason to fear that inequality will lead to their unseating.

MH: If we’re going to talk about gentrification and the use of artists as levers or vehicles to open up what were formerly poor, usually racialized neighborhoods for “investment” and accumulation by dispossession (as David Harvey puts it), then I think we need to go back one more step. Because here we have to introduce the notions of race and class and gender which are also tied up in the notion of the artist.

It’s not a coincidence that the idea that we have of the quintessential artist looks a lot like those who, throughout capitalist history, have been the quintessential capitalists. They are typically white men, usually from western Europe (but not exclusively), from elite backgrounds. That’s who we associate typically with artists, although we do have a certain notion since the Impressionists that they are poor in a very romantic, glamorous way. But throughout the actual history of capitalism, many artists (and especially art collectors and the other movers in the “art world” more generally) have been from the elites. Specifically, they have been the same people running factories and managing colonies, and women have really (until the twentieth century) been almost completely excluded from the realm of artists.

Beginning from that position, where the idea or ideal of the artist is really a member of the ruling class, we can now draw a clearer line to how that ideal is being mobilized in this moment of financialized capitalism. Here we see that artists have become what some scholars have called the “shock troops” of gentrification, the soldiers who are put out at the front of the army who are really meant to be slaughtered but who are so fanatical and driven that they can break through the front line of the enemy ranks.

This militarized metaphor seems quite accurate for what happens to artists, because these days, especially in the twentieth century, many artists tend to live on the economic margins of society even if they do come from positions of inherited wealth; they tend to be looking for large studio spaces in usually abandoned or semi-abandoned zones (or zones that are presumed to be abandoned by the dominant socio-cultural paradigm), so they end up moving into neighborhoods where rent is cheap or where wealthier people do not desire to live. And following them come the yuppies, who are attracted to artists, are attracted to the culture and businesses that artists either start or catalyze within a neighborhood, and slowly rents rise, the police start showing up, and the original inhabitants of the neighborhood (and eventually the artists themselves) get pushed out of the way to make room, essentially, for people who see the neighborhood as a source of investment, as a place to sink their money so that they can benefit from rising property values in the future, whether they live in that neighborhood or not.

This is just one of the ways in which art becomes a tool for financialization, and artists become a tool of financialization. But there are others as well. For quite a long time, art has been a method for evading taxes or for laundering money. Investing in art and then donating art to a major museum or art gallery becomes a tax-deductible donation for many extremely wealthy people. You can use art in various ways; you can move money around the world by moving art. You can sink your money into expensive works of art and store them in a “free port,” which is basically a luxury warehouse attached to an airport, with special rules around customs and duties and special legal designations. You can put your art collection in these vaults for centuries and merely trade the rights to that art as a purely financial asset. There are companies now that specialize in pooling the assets of many investors and then hiring a bunch of art experts to basically buy a collection of art purely as a portfolio for its future returns.

There are many other mechanisms for mobilizing art as an “alternative asset class,” an asset class that’s becoming more central to the thinking and also the operations of many financiers, and even financial institutions like banks.

CM: You write, “In the last fifteen years or so, astronomical records have been set, then broken, for the hammer price of works by still-living artists at the world’s duopoly fine art auction houses, Sotheby’s and Christie’s, but this represents only a fraction of all the works sold in the notoriously murky, cronyistic, and one might even say deeply corrupt market for art.”

Can the art industry corrupt finance?

MH: Finance is already fundamentally corrupt, so it can’t really be more corrupted. Within neoliberalism there is a notion that the financial services industry is a good thing and is a pure organ of the capitalist body. But if we look historically, as we’ve spoken about in previous interviews, we can see that the financial services industry has always existed to facilitate and to normalize (and in many ways to hide or disguise) horrific forms of exploitation and extraction of resources from people and the Earth, starting with slavery and colonialism, for which the signature institutions of finance were created.

This moment of financialization of the last thirty years has been really changed by the flights of the imagination and forms of noxious creativity that financiers have been able to get away with in a moment when they’re no longer being regulated by the state, and also when social movements have been at a low point in their tide. Essentially, capitalists have no reason to fear that inequality will lead to their unseating. But ultimately I wouldn’t call that art and creativity “corrupting” finance. I would just call that a change in relationship between the two.

If we actually got to express our creativity and imagination in terms of how we organize society, that’s a form of socialism or anarchism. That’s not capitalism. In capitalism, only a few people ever get to do that.

The two have always been related, and we shouldn’t mourn the passing of this notion of autonomous, free, radical art that we think existed in the past and now has been corrupted. Likewise we shouldn’t mourn the passing of a “good and pure” financial industry that has been corrupted by the evil imaginations and machinations of greedy individuals. Both art and money have always been embroiled with each other, they’ve been encrypted within each other, to use the terminology I use in the book. And the question for me is not how art, as something that stands outside of finance and outside of capitalism, can comment on and challenge capitalism and finance. The question for me is how art, as something that has always been embroiled within finance and within capitalism, can comment on and reveal and challenge financialization and capitalism from within.

It’s not an argument that art is somehow this pure, beautiful thing that comes out of the romantic imagination, a spark from god. This thing has always emerged within and evolved out of capitalism, and so maybe it has something to teach us about the system that gave birth to it.

CM: You write, “We need to pay close attention to the way the entire field of contemporary art is embroiled in this game: Not only the auction houses, dealers, and mega-museums but also the whole global art production chain, independent galleries, art schools, art writers and critics, even artists themselves. Financialized money trickles down unevenly and unfairly, and influences all art world spaces in some way, even spaces that are avowedly independent and allegedly radical.”

So is the art industry, then, an unspoken welfare system that rewards rich white people institutionally? Is art another institution of white privilege?

MH: That is the material reality of it, in large part. A great group in New York called called BFAMFAPhD has done a survey (and there are other groups around the world that have done similar artist inquiries as well) and found that the ability to thrive and succeed as an artist is highly correlated to your level of socioeconomic and cultural privilege.

One of my struggles writing a book about art and the art market is that—as you can probably already tell—I don’t particularly care what happens to the art market, and I’m not super sympathetic to artists. I’m more interested in what they can tell us about capitalism as a whole. For artists who are concerned about art and the art market, they should be concerned with joining others and trying to abolish that system.

But in the interests of talking about what art can teach us, the question about artists and their relative privilege is very important, because what it shows us is that the art market would like to imagine itself as a pure meritocracy. Like the rest of capitalism, it has to build this myth that it rewards talent “blindly” (for lack of a better term); that an art collector, an art gallerist, the whole art system knows great work when they see it and they’re going to reward it.

What we in fact see is that the people who can survive and thrive within the art market and art world are often people who come from very privileged backgrounds, and that privilege tends to correlate highly to access to whiteness, to being a man, to coming from an upper class background. That means that still to this day, what gets regarded as signature work contributing to our society and culture is disproportionately the work of white, wealthy men. That, in turn, reaffirms a kind of mythology of white supremacy as well as patriarchal notions of creativity, imagination, and capacity—that are of course still normalized within the rest of the economy. There’s a vicious circle between the art world and other spheres of our society in terms of reproducing these very pernicious mythologies.

CM: You write, “Money and art in fact hold one another up, so to speak, to mutually reinforce one another as institutions of capitalism amidst that system’s crises and contradictions.”

Can capitalism exist without art?

MH: No, it can’t, in the sense that capitalism increasingly needs to co-opt, constrain, and harness all human capacities. Especially as cycles of accumulation manifest in what we now call neoliberalism and financialization, capitalism needs to claim more and more of the energies that we as humans are predisposed to expressing. What we call art is a foreclosure, or the container in which we put those passions and energies that we associate with the terms creativity and imagination. So art is needed, because it’s a box within capitalism where we dump a bunch of stuff that capitalists don’t want infecting the rest of the economy.

If we actually got to express our creativity and imagination in terms of how we organize society, that’s a form of socialism or anarchism. That’s not capitalism. In capitalism, only a few people ever get to do that. So essentially, capitalism does need art. Previous moments of capitalism have needed art in different ways. They’ve needed art to help reproduce the capitalist class, to give capitalists a reason to go to the opera and hobnob with one another, to give capitalists art schools to send their children to, to give capitalists assets that they can buy and admire, and, in admiring the artwork they bought, admire themselves in a narcissistic fashion for their wisdom and benevolence and cultural largesse.

Capitalism has always needed art. That said, it doesn’t need art as much as it needs a lot of other things, for instance money, or labor. If all artists went on strike (and there have been efforts to do this) it would not immediately bring the collapse of the capitalist system. What would be much more effective, however, is if artists when on strike as part of, let’s say, a global creativity and imagination strike—which is to say, everyone who labors would strike; it would be a general strike of a whole population—to say that we will no longer stand for our creativity, imagination, passion, and pleasure to be constrained and exploited by the system.

That’s the point where I think art has some leverage. It’s not so much about it being this distinct field where you go and see this nice object in a gallery. It has to do with the place that it holds in our imagination, for the things that we truly want to animate our society but which are today denied to so many of us and denied to the structure of the system as a whole.

CM: Max, it has been a pleasure talking to you again. Appreciate you being back on our show.

MH: It’s always a pleasure.

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