The arts have been absorbed into a generalised flow of cultural production, all tuned to the resonant frequency of collective alienation. But the colonisation of culture by capital has also sown the seeds of current and future dissent.

On the Arts Council’s website there is a page entitled ‘Why the Arts Matter’. Ostensibly part of the ‘About us’ section, most of it is, in fact, an attempt to put the case for the arts in the face of cuts.

The opening gambit reads: “Thanks to 15 years of sustained support… the arts are thriving. We have visionary leaders; entrepreneurial business models; a global reputation for excellence and innovation; enhanced facilities; a transformational Olympics opportunity; and a growing cultural economy built on a new spirit of creative confidence.” It goes on to claim that “arts investment [is] fundamental to the future competitiveness of British business”, both in terms of “the creative industries,” which in recent years have grown “faster than any other sector,” and art’s centrality to tourism.

Out of 18 bullet points, there are only five that deal with issues other than the economic virtues of the arts. One of these is dedicated to art and the Olympics, while another is a complementary nod to Cameron’s Big Society. One of the more memorable lines emerges in the concluding paragraph: “we have evolved into a strong, efficient, outward-looking organisation, and will continue to drive down costs…”

The Arts Council’s arguments are not simply wishful thinking; they are based on real developments. The ‘creative sector,’ including art, music, fashion, design and advertising, accounted for 2 million jobs and £16.6bn of exports in th UK in 2007. When Theodor Adorno first wrote about the culture industry he used the words with a sense of both irony and outrage. Now those words pass by barely noticed, as a label for an undeniable economic fact. The arts have been absorbed into a generalised flow of cultural production, comprising TV, advertising, brand names, Hollywood, and online media, all tuned to the resonant frequency of collective alienation.

This is the atmosphere that Naomi Klein so presciently captured in her book No Logo: multinational companies were ”no longer simply branding their own products, but branding the outside culture as well… they could go out into the world and claim bits of it as brand-name outposts… It was about thirstily soaking up cultural ideas and iconography… projecting these ideas and images back on the culture as ‘extensions’ of their brands… ‘art was a natural synergy with [the] product'” (p.39).

No Logo became one of the bibles of the anticapitalist movement, most dramatically heralded in the 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organisation. Anticapitalism forced the cultural malaise inspired by commodification onto the agenda. It renewed the question of commodification, turning what were either desiccated theoretical points or private anxieties into the burning issues of a new movement. Culture, in a broad sense, was part of these issues.

This is not an unproblematic situation for ‘cultural leaders’ who accept the necessity of the cuts. The more they preach the values of art as being primarily economic the more they are going to have to start living up to those values. University vice chancellors were the first to press for lifting the cap on tuition fees. Now that the government has taken them up on their offer, with the proviso that university funding will also be cut, they may regret getting what they wished for (though obviously the suffering caused is not managerial inconvenience but the redundancies, impossible fees, and massive debt experienced by students, lecturers and support staff).

With the Arts Council budget slashed by over 70 percent, a similar situation is coming true for the arts: the ones who will suffer will be the artists, administrators and cultural workers; it will be those people who lose jobs and livelihoods. The millions that make up their audiences, whose access to culture is being bought up, sold out and shut down, will also suffer.

A great number of those involved in the arts will have already witnessed the creeping privatisation of culture as part of a wider process of commodification and commercialisation, and experienced the disillusion that goes with this. The connection between these two experiences, as part of a broad anti-cuts movement, is potentially electrifying. Directors of arts institutions may be getting a taste of the spirit of the student occupations that are threatening to break down the doors of university managements, sooner rather than later.


Naomi Klein, No Logo: Taking aim at the brand bullies (Flamingo 2000)

Alistair Cartwright

Alistair Cartwright is an activist with the Stop the War Coalition and a member of Counterfire.