Art and Leisure in the Age of Neoliberalism (2014)

It is therefore, the interest of all, that every one, from birth, should be well educated, physically and mentally that society may be improved in its character, – that everyone should be beneficially employed, physically and mentally, that the greatest amount of wealth may be created, and knowledge attained, that everyone should be placed in the midst at those external circumstances, that will produce the greatest number of pleasurable sensations, through the longest life, that man may be made truly intelligent, moral and happy…

Robert Owen, 1841

Ten years ago, in 2004, I was invited to read from my then-newly published book on the Glasgow art and music scene, Social Sculpture, at an event organized by Edinburgh radical bookshop, Word Power. I decided to read from the conclusion of the book, but as I reached a quotation from Terry Eagleton’s 1997 book Marx and Freedom (“We are free, when like artists, we produce without the goad of physical necessity.”) I hesitated and skipped it, went on to the next line. Afterwards, the curator Will Bradley, who was taking part in the panel discussion that followed, asked why I had missed out the line. He said he had been planning to talk about that quotation and what it meant.

I hadn’t spoken the line aloud because I had the sudden feeling that I didn’t know what it meant. There was something problematic in Eagleton’s idea, which I want to explore in this essay.

In 2010, a revised and expanded version of Social Sculpture was published. When I rewrote the conclusion, I hesitated but then kept Eagleton’s quotation in. There was something idealistic and inspiring about Eagleton’s idea, which I also want to explore in this essay.

The quotation at the beginning of this text is from Robert Owen, the Welsh social reformer and one of the founders of utopian socialism and the cooperative movement. After his marriage to Caroline Dale in 1799, Owen became a manager and part-owner of New Lanark cotton mills near Glasgow, which had been started in 1785 by Caroline’s father, Glaswegian businessman and philanthropist David Dale and the English inventor Richard Arkwright. Owen implemented a number of changes at New Lanark motivated by philanthropic principles rather than commercial interests, such as improving pay and the working and living conditions of the 2500 workers, many of who had come from the poorhouses of Glasgow and Edinburgh.i

The chief points in Owen’s philosophy, first expounded in A New View of Society, or Essays on the Principle of the Formation of the Human Character (1813) were that man’s character was formed by circumstances over which he had no control, by a combination of Nature or God and the circumstances of the individual’s experience. As part of his project of improving the quality of life of the workers at New Lanark, he opened an Institute for the Formation of Character in (1816).ii He explained,

The three lower rooms (in the Institute) will be open for the use of the adult part of the population, who are to be provided with every accommodation requisite to enable them to read, write, account, sew or play, converse or walk about. Two evenings in the week will be appropriated to dancing and music, but on these occasions, every accommodation will be prepared for those who prefer to study or to follow any of the occupations pursued on the other evenings.

Owen’s campaign for education as a means of eradicating society’s problems, and making people happier and more fulfilled, continued throughout his working life. In The Social System (1826) he wrote, ‘To train and educate the rising generation will at all times be the first object of society, to which every other will be subordinate.’

I’m revisiting the utopian socialism of Robert Owen because it still seems to have much to teach us, nearly 200 years later. Owen was fortunate in having both the private funds and the support of board members such as the economist Jeremy Bentham, which allowed him to implement his vision of a model society at New Lanark. Today, New Lanark is a World Heritage Site visited by 350,000 visitors every year. How I wish New Lanark were not a curiosity of utopian socialism, preserved as a museum, but that Owen’s values had remained alive, enshrined in British governmental policy.

In the post-World War II period the establishment and expansion of the welfare state and the increased provision of funded higher and further education in the United Kingdom, did to some extent uphold Robert Owen’s emphasis on fairly paid work and his insistence on access to education and pleasurable recreation for all. Prime Minister Clement Attlee (1945-1951), the first Labour politician to serve a full term and the first to command a Labour majority in parliament, adopted the ideas espoused by the economist JM Keynes in The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936) and stimulated the UK economy by increasing public spending. Following the recommendations of economist and social reformer William Beveridge’s 1942 Report, Attlee tackled the five giant evils of ‘want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness’ through a number of reforms. The last of these evils – idleness – has the most bearing with regard to this discussion, as part of an understanding of health that encompasses mental health as well as physical health. As Robert Owen had understood many years earlier, meaningful leisure activities such as reading and dancing gave shape and purpose to human existence and were as necessary to wellbeing as other means of safeguarding health such as good nutrition and medical care.

The National Health Service was established in 1948, followed by a national system of benefits to provide social security ‘from the cradle to the grave’. Attlee also invested heavily in free universal education and in council housing and nationalized public utilities and major industries, beginning with road haulage, railways and coal in 1947 and then the coal industry in 1951. For three decades all parties accepted the reforms put in place in the post-war years.

However, since 1979, when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government (1979-1990) took power, those principles and values have been steadily eroded. Thatcher’s political philosophy and economic policies emphasized deregulated (particularly of the financial sector), flexible labour markets, the privatisation of state-owned companies and reducing the power and influence of the trade unions. In Thatcher’s view, articulated in a 1987 interview with Woman’s Own magazine, there was ‘no such thing as society […] the quality of our lives will depend on how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves.’ Her period of office, and that of her successor, John Major (1990-1997) were characterized an emphasis on personal responsibility and choice – and by public spending cuts that polarized the life experiences of the rich and the poor.

R. Pollack, Dereliction at New Lanark in 1983
R. Pollack, Dereliction at New Lanark in 1983

The Labour governments of 1997-2010 increased public spending, until the 2008 global financial crisis ushered in four years of global recession. The Coalition Government has, since taking power in 2010, pledged (in a manner very reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s early years in office) to promote the free market economy while enforcing ‘austerity measures’ in the form of vicious and damaging cuts to public spending, notably in the areas of welfare (health care, social housing and benefits), in education and in the arts. Real earnings have fallen continuously since 2010, the longest decline in living standards since the 1870s.iii

Since 2010, when the Coalition government won a vote in the House of Commons which would result in universities eventually being able to charge students up to £9,000 a year for their annual tuition costs, Higher Education educators have increasingly become viewed as service providers by students who (with some justification) increasingly behave as customers.  But today HE academics and support staff (after receiving an annual 1% pay increase) are facing a 13% pay cut in real terms as compared with pay rates in 2008. Meanwhile, in the same time period, vice-chancellors have received wage increases averaging 8.1%, with some now on more than £400,000.

Up until the 1980s Glasgow School of Art (GSA), where many of the city’s best-known artists studied, attracted a largely local student body, who could apply for funding via the Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS) to support the cost of both tuition fees and (if eligible) their maintenance while a student. Since the late 90s the scene in Glasgow has changed as the city has become established as a noted art centre: a place where aspirant artists can form alliances and build a profile –and with lower rents than either London or New York. Nowadays the GSA’s cohort is much larger and more geographically diverse: 20 % are international students and a further 20% are from the rest of the UK. The MFA programme at Glasgow School of Art, which had a year group of just 12 mainly UK students during the 90s, now recruits over thirty students for the two years masters course, many of whom hail from outside the UK. Today, many students attending Glasgow School of Art come from comfortable backgrounds – a situation that is replicated in all other UK HE institutions. Data published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in August 2013 showed that the gap in progression rates between private and state schools has widened since 2008, and that almost two-thirds of students from the independent sector went on to Britain’s leading institutions in 2010/11 compared with less than a quarter of those from the state system. And within the state school system, teenagers from the poorest families – those eligible for free school meals – were half as likely to progress on to any higher education course as relatively affluent classmates.

Since 2008, market forces have brought an increased sense of competition to the cultural scene in the United Kingdom – competition for audiences, for attention, and for funding. The reality of the current situation is that the inequality of access to art and culture reflects wider social inequalities. The class divide that is apparent from the postcode lottery of birth is increased by the introduction of university fees, is reinforced post-graduation by unpaid “opportunities” such as internships, which rule out anyone who cannot afford to work for free. The massive upsurge in unpaid internships that followed the 2008 financial crash has not gone unnoticed, especially by those who lack the means to pay for that all-important “foot in the door”. Dom Anderson, vice president for society and citizenship at the National Union of Students said, ‘Unpaid internships are one of the biggest obstructions faced by young people and students today. With over a million young people unemployed, we need to be clear now more than ever that young people’s enthusiasm and desire to work cannot be exploited. A fair day’s work always deserves a fair day’s pay.’ In November 2013, The Guardian reported that HMRC had announced it would be cracking down on unpaid internships, by targeting 200 employers who had recently advertised for free labour.

Part of my problem with Eagleton’s sentence (“We are free, when like artists, we produce without the goad of physical necessity.”) was that it didn’t match my experiences of how many artists lived. A 2012 survey conducted by the Scottish Artist Union (SAU) confirmed that three-quarters of visual artists in Scotland earn less than £5,000 a year, putting them in the lowest socioeconomic group of income earners, alongside pensioners, casual or lowest grade workers, benefit claimants and students. Similarly statistics seem to apply to writers, as Naomi Alderman, professor of creative writing at Bath Spa University, pointed out in an article published by The Guardian on 14th March 2014. Alderman said,

If you’re a responsible teacher, you talk to your students about money. You say: most novelists earn around £5,000 a year from their writing. You watch them blench. You say: so if you’re going to do this, you have to think about how you’re going to support yourself. I tell my students about journalism, about other kinds of writing, about crowdfunding, about grants, about balancing the day job with the novels, and the pitfalls of all of these. Most people can’t make a living only from selling their art, but almost anyone can put together a life in and around the art form they love if that’s what they really want.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s annual report on how much income is enough to pay for a basic but socially acceptable standard of living concluded last year that a single people needed to earn at least £16,850 a year before tax in 2013 for a minimum acceptable living standard. How do aspirant cultural workers make up the difference? For some, it is through a “day job”. For others, it is “the bank of mum and dad.” And as writer and curator Isla Leaver-Yap said at a 2012 meeting organized in Glasgow by the Scottish Artist’s Union (S.A.U.) to discuss non-payment of artist’s fees, ‘If only the people who can afford not to be paid are making art, then those who can’t don’t.’ S.A.U. has in recent years begun to campaign for best practices between cultural producers and the institutions that contract their labour, taking a lead from New York based activist group Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E).

The artists, musicians and writers who emerged in Glasgow during the Thatcher and Major years (1979-1997) didn’t have to make a choice between conventional paid labour and their artistic practice (usually unpaid), given that there wasn’t much paid employment of any kind to be had. As local poet Donnie O’Rourke put it, this created ‘a whole generation of artists, who, absolved of the old polarity between employment and one’s real work, just do it.’ In those years of high unemployment, the city’s subcultural scene grew incrementally, following the model of the avant-garde: Parisian salons re-imagined as exhibitions in rented tenement flats. But as many of the participants were without private income, it was a scene largely funded by goodwill and income derived from benefits and non-art related jobs in ‘semi-routine’ occupations’ such as manual work, cleaning, temping in offices, bar and shop work, often on a temporary or part-time basis or through art-related employment such as arts administration, art installation, art invigilation, art therapy, and the teaching of art.

Social Sculpture was a book that I wrote because I felt so inspired by the relentless enthusiasm of certain determined individuals active in Glasgow from the early 1980s onwards, who had not been able to reply upon public subsidy, private patrons or media for support, but had refused to allow this to curtail their ambitions. At heart the scene that revolved around grass-roots organisations such as the artist-run gallery Transmission (est. 1983), Variant magazine (est. 1984), Women in Profile (est. 1987, in 1991 evolved into Glasgow Women’s Library), The Free University (est. 1987), Tower Studios (est. 1987) and Worker’s City (est. 1988) was fired by the same kind of utopian socialism espoused by Robert Owen. That generation of artist-organisers were not motivated by profit, but instead rooted in a desired social experience: one that rested upon people investing time in supporting one another through social co-operation, collectivism and conviviality.

However, as the years have gone by, and I have gradually moved from only writing about the cultural scene in the city, to also teaching at Glasgow School of Art and curating exhibitions and organizing events, I experienced first hand how much that “make do and mend” attitude really costs in terms of time and energy. As an attitude it requires a belief in society, community and art that may at times be difficult to sustain. Given competition for funds and opportunities there is no guarantee of being able to secure funds to support creative practice, either through (rare) commissions or sales of work or funding applications to public bodies like the Scottish Arts Council (re-constituted as Creative Scotland in 2010), Glasgow City Council or other trusts and funds. Public funding for art is heavily oversubscribed. For example, in January 2014, Creative Scotland received 383 applications requesting in excess of £5million of grant support from their Artist’s Bursaries Fund. Within the budget available for this deadline they made 39 Awards totaling £440,000, meaning that less than 10% of the applications received were successful.As a consequence, many of the vital, invisible activities that keep communities together go for the most part go without recognition or fair payment.

The crucial difference between Owen’s 19th Century New Lanark cotton mills and 21st Century Glasgow’s post-Fordian economy is that the wealth generated through the shopping-and-services economy of contemporary Glasgow tends not to be wholly redirected back to the local population to improve their educational and recreational possibilities. In the contemporary neoliberal situation, those companies that have benefitted from the cultural regeneration of post-industrial cities like Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester/Salford, do not necessarily feed money back into those cities. On 16th March 2014, The Sunday Herald reported on one notorious recent example: Peel Ports Limited, who in the last financial year paid no tax at all on profits of more than £628 million. The Peel Group has significant interests across the UK, and owns numerous ports, retail and media facilities including Mersey Docks, Durham and Doncaster airports, MediaCityUK in Salford, Blythswood Square and Robertson Street in Glasgow city centre, the Meadowside complex in Renfrew and Straiton retail park in Edinburgh. All of Peel’s national and international concerns lead back to Tokenhouse Limited, a company with total assets reportedly worth more than £18bn, registered in the offshore tax haven of the Isle of Man. As the political economist Will Hutton observed in his recent article, Capitalism simply isn’t working and here are the reasons why, allowing the rich to protect their wealth from taxation not only allows them become ever richer but also to become increasingly detached from the societies of which they are part. He wrote:

In Britain, it may be true that the top 1% pays a third of all income tax, but income tax constitutes only 25% of all tax revenue: 45% comes from VAT, excise duties and national insurance paid by the mass of the population. As a result, the burden of paying for public goods such as education, health and housing is increasingly shouldered by average taxpayers, who don’t have the wherewithal to sustain them. Wealth inequality thus becomes a recipe for slowing, innovation-averse, rentier economies, tougher working conditions and degraded public services.iv

Although some private patrons of the arts do exist in Scotland, they are relatively few in number and the responsibility for supporting art and culture rests mainly on public funds derived from taxpayers and those who buy lottery tickets. In the absence of taxation on higher earners being enforced effectively by the UK Government, available funds for public spending are curtailed. And, as Dr. Jeremy Valentine, wrote in an article entitled “Why Scottish culture is a risky business” (The Scotsman, March 13th 2014), ‘In budget allocation competitions within government, culture will always come off worst against things like health, schools, roads, energy and poverty.’

On 14th March, 2014, the Arts Council of England released a report, The Value of Arts and Culture to People and Society: An Evidence Review, in which they stated the case for gathering further information on the multitude of benefits the arts bring, in order that continuing and greater investment in the arts can be won from public and private funders. The foreword stated,

The general value of arts and culture to society has long been assumed, while the specifics have just as long been debated. Try to imagine society without the humanizing influence of the arts, and you will have to strip out most of what is pleasurable in life, as well as much that is educationally critical and socially essential. Life without the collective resources of our libraries, museums, theatres and galleries, or without the personal expression of literature, music and art, would be static and sterile – no creative arguments about the past, no diverse and stimulating present and no dreams of the future. Of course the inherent value of arts and culture is, in part, a philosophical assertion that can’t be measured in numbers. Quantifying the benefits and expressing them in terms of facts and figures that can evidence the contribution made to our collective and individual lives has always presented a problem, but it is something that arts and culture organisations will always have to do in order to secure funding from both public and private sources. […] We need to be able to show the impact of arts and culture on different scales – on individual, communal and national levels – so that we can raise awareness among the public, across the cultural, educational and political sectors and among those who influence investment in both the public and private sectors.

The public funding of art in contemporary Scotland relies upon those who implement cultural policy making funding decisions based on a criterion of what culture is and what it should do (Be socially inclusive? Be made by those already recognized as ‘successful’? Be ‘good value’?) Those who implement cultural policy must also, as Dr. Valentine pointed out in his article, ‘audit projects in order to check whether the boxes have been ticked in the right way and “evaluate” whether the “outcomes” have been achieved.’ He concludes, ‘This is a waste of resources which encourages cynical conformism and Creative Scotland could probably drive greater cultural value by relaxing its grip and encouraging risk.’

Would it be a risk? Or an informed guess? Everyone should be placed in the midst at those external circumstances, that will produce the greatest number of pleasurable sensations, through the longest life, that man may be made truly intelligent, moral and happy…

Let us turn now to American anarchist Bob Black’s 1985 essay “The Abolition of Work” in which he disputes the wisdom of life devoted to the production and consumption of commodities. Black contends that much work is unnecessary, because it only serves the purposes of social control and economic exploitation. Black states that the only way for humans to be free is to reclaim their time from jobs and employment, instead turning necessary subsistence tasks into free play done voluntarily. Black argues that ‘no-one should ever work’, because work – defined as compulsory productive activity enforced by social or political means – is the source of most of the unhappiness in the world, eating up as it does time and inclination for friendship and what he calls ‘meaningful activity’.

Victor Considérant, Perspective view of Charles Fourier's Phalanstère
Victor Considérant, Perspective view of Charles Fourier’s Phalanstère

Bob Black’s thinking draws upon the much earlier writings of French philosopher Charles Fourier (b.1772, d.1837) who declared that concern and co-operation were the secrets of social success. Like Robert Owen, Fourier characterized poverty (not inequality) as the principle cause of disorder in society, and he proposed to eradicate it by sufficiently high wages and by a ‘decent minimum’ for those who were not able to work. He advocated a new world order based on unity of action and harmonious collaboration. In addition to liberating human passion, he felt that education was central means of liberating individual men, women and children. Fourier believed that a society that cooperated would see an immense improvement in their productivity levels, and visualized such cooperation occurring in communities of 1620 people he called phalanxes, based around structures called Phalansteres or ‘grand hotels’ where jobs would be assigned on the interests and desires of the individual and jobs people might not enjoy doing would receive higher pay. American post-anarchist author Peter Lamborn Wilson, aka Hakim Bey, wrote in his essay “The Lemonade Ocean & Modern Times” (1991) that ‘The life of the Phalanstry is a continual orgy of intense feeling, intellection and activity, a society of lovers and wild enthusiasts.’

We are free, when like artists, we produce without the goad of necessity.

Maybe it was the words ‘like artists’ in Eagleton’s sentence that I hesitated over. Shouldn’t everyone have the energy and the inclination to produce without the goad of necessity: whether it’s having a conversation with a friend, writing a story, going for a walk, baking a cake, drawing a picture, sewing a dress or growing tomatoes? Yet neoliberalism stamps out the urge for ‘meaningful activity’ in all but the privileged few. Most British people are too tired to readv eat too much junk food and rarely exercisevi, and are ruled by a government who offers nothing except “beer and bingo” to dull their pain.vii

It is therefore, the interest of all, that every one, from birth, should be well educated, physically and mentally that society may be improved in its character, – that everyone should be beneficially employed, physically and mentally, that the greatest amount of wealth may be created, and knowledge attained, that everyone should be placed in the midst at those external circumstances, that will produce the greatest number of pleasurable sensations, through the longest life, that man may be made truly intelligent, moral and happy…

This essay was commissioned by Museums Press VI, Art and Leisure (2014)

i As Bell, Colin and Rose explain in their book City Fathers: The Early History of Town Planning in Britain (1972).

ii As Donnachie and Hewitt relate in Historic New Lanark: The Dale and Owen Industrial Community since 1785 (1993).

iii Seumas Milne, “Budget 2014: George Osborne’s record is a dismal failure even in his own terms”, The Guardian, 19th March 2014.

ivWill Hutton, “Capitalism simply isn’t working and here are the reasons why”, The Observer, 12th April 2014.

v A 2013 survey by the charity Booktrust found thaton average, the richer someone’s background, the more likely they are to read. Meanwhile a higher proportion of people from poorer backgrounds admitted they never read. More than one in four (27%) of adults from the poorest socio-economic backgrounds said they never read books themselves, compared with just 13% of those from the richest socio-economic backgrounds.Almost half of those questioned (45%) said they prefer watching TV and DVDs to reading a novel. Source: Hannah Richardson, “England divided into readers and watchers”, BBC News, 11th March 2014.

vi The UK has more obese women than any other country in Europe, a 2011 study by data agency Eurostat found. 28% of adults in Scotland are obese. The figures suggested that the proportion of women who are obese or overweight falls as the education level rises. Source: “UK women are the fattest in Europe”, BBC News 26th November 2011. In 2014, more than half of Britons are overweight or obese and only 6% of men and 4% of women meet the government’s recommended levels of physical activity. Source: Juliette Jowit, “Why are we really overweight?”, The Guardian, 26th February 2014.

vii On March 20st 2014 Conservative chairman Grant Shapps posted a #Budget2014 poster on Twitter celebrating “cutting the bingo tax and beer duty to help hardworking people do more of the things they enjoy”. The suggestion, as Owen Jones commented in The Guardian the same day, ‘is so crude it looks like a crude attempt at satire’ but the much-lampooned poster may yet prove fatal to the Conservative’s party’s recent attempts to rebrand themselves as the party of the workers.

Image credits:

Fig 1: Victor Considérant, Perspective view of Charles Fourier’s Phalanstère. The rural areas and the gardens are not represented. (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

Fig 2: R. Pollack, Dereliction at New Lanark in 1983 (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

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