Who Am I In The Art World?

The consequences of ignoring the complex and contradictory regimes of value that are played out within the art world.

Dr Eve Olney

I recently attended an arts event that placed its focus on the inter-relationship between art and activism. Although I was unable to attend the whole event the part that I did participate in raised its own questions and critical concerns for me in terms of how – as a group of people –we were casually projecting our own interpretations of what the art world is. My immediate problem lies within the implicit assumptions that we were making about ourselves as a group as well as in terms of how we were positioning ourselves in relation to each other. This unchecked objectification of ‘art world’ entirely depoliticized the arts/cultural sector that I am aware of and rendered me unable to take a critical foothold within the emerging discussion. I felt my contributions were abstract, drifting and conflictual. I felt unable to speak from my own subject position without having an agreed critical interpretation of what, or whose, ‘art world’ was under consideration.

This passing dilemma settled uneasily into deeper concerns over the following weeks and I began to revisit my earlier research concerned with determining value systems and concepts of human agency within the Irish arts sector, conducted in 2012-2014[i]. It seems to me that not much has changed and the critical analysis I drew from at that time[ii] is even more relevant to my experience now. The arts/cultural sector is arguably more problematic in terms of the neoliberal value systems that are increasingly becoming normalised. Even more alarming is that, at times, this is carried through an oppositional ‘activist’ or ‘inclusive’ language. I believe that this is something that should concern all who work and attempt to work in this field.  

The lack of discernment, in terms of what is at stake, due to an absence of a critical understanding of difference amongst a professional group of arts/cultural workers, is, for me, indicative of much deeper issues in terms of the ongoing normalization of inequalities and what art theorist, Lane Relyea, refers to as neoliberal-led ‘delusions of agency [that] obscure underlying systematic determinants’ (2013: xi)[iii] within the Irish arts and cultural sector. During the art event discussion I heard repetitive, casual comparisons being made between the ‘art world’ and ‘the real world’. In itself, this might seem reasonable within a context of constructing a comparative argument. However, without being fastened to a particular contextual analysis, my problem became how and where to situate myself within either category in the first instance, but also where to position myself in between the juxtaposition that is not part of my own reality of lived experience. For example, I largely conceive the art world as a field of precarity and invisible labour and a daily struggle for survival. Relyea cautions against a bracketing of ‘new value hierarchies’ within the art sector, that are nonchalantly separated ‘from social, economic, and political perspectives that would problematize the attribution of progressivity to [how things are being presented as being the ‘norm’]’, (Ibid: xi). Moreover, when this juxtapositioning is being critically framed within a discussion (in my experience) it tends to stem from a traditional Marxist perspective of social production that, as a feminist, I also fail to recognise myself within[iv].

Therefore, my focus lies within that critical discursive space where I am unable to express my own version of experience as an art/cultural worker. I wonder how far that space needs to be extended in order for myself, and others who dis-identify with the ill-defined ‘norm’, might also be made visible and understood. How might we determine a value for ourselves as arts/cultural workers that can yet be acknowledged within the broader field of creative practices? I believe that the obstacles to this are directly related to how difference is being managed within the arts/cultural sector. For example, at institutional-level meetings reflecting on arts/cultural management I find there to be a kind of power struggle over the use of language as well as a necessity to abide by and mimic the value systems set out ‘within mainstream institutions operating according to neoliberal capitalist cultural logics’ in order to be heard and taken seriously (Kafiris and Olney, 2022)[v].

As someone who was born in the 1970s I had always intuitively understood the art world to be a political counterpoint to a capitalist-led agenda for social organisation. However, as argued by sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello in their principal book, The New Spirit of Capitalism (2007), the autonomous and rebellious entrepreneurial spirit of the 1960s artist, became the ‘poster child’ for the neoliberal individualistic subject, during the 1980s and has progressively morphed into ‘the do-it-yourselfer, the networker, free agent’ (Relyea 2013: 10) who works from zero hours contract to contract. This is the current set of conditions that those entering into the arts/cultural sector are inheriting. Within this is a disturbing – and false – sense of individual freedom or agency that directly grounds the art/cultural worker’s precarity within their own ‘free’ choices.

The illusion of equality amongst those of use participating in the art event discussion could also be attributed to an existing misconception of creative practice being somewhat freed from the rigidity of institutional regimes of value since critically embracing the looser, more autonomous-looking fluid networks of social organisation, as well as a continuing shift of emphasis towards socially engaged art practice. This can be evidenced within the growth of self-organised artist-led spaces pursuing ‘a sub-cultural basis for authentic artistic production’ (Relyea 2013: 5). I would tentatively place myself in this latter category and I think it is worth asking on what basis exactly is this approach progressing the art and cultural sector towards being more inclusive and equal for all? There is so much invisible labour involved in creating such collective, autonomous, art worlds. What kind of ‘equality’ am I as an arts/cultural worker advocating and how might my success be impacting on others in my field of practice? Where do I stand in relation to the collective? I have been in many situations during collaborative practice on large projects where there is a ‘necessary’ unequal distribution of pay or volunteerism in order for the project to not fail. This is not sustainable for many obvious reasons. Relyea cites Susan Buck-Mors observation, that I would [GP1] apply to this situation where, ‘members of the same society become aware that they ‘no longer inhabit the same economy’ [and] reconsider what they owe each other [that, in turn] challenges the very definition of the collective itself’, (Ibid: 9). Therefore, without any processes or opportunities of sustainability can there even be an argument for collectives within this current scheme of cultural production? In my experience the failure of most collectives is due to these kinds of unacknowledged inequalities of resources that are, in turn, led by assumptions being made regarding the individuals’ position and needs in relation to the ‘collective’.

I would integrate cultural theorist, John Frow’s, conceptualisation of value-systems within this part of my argument, where he makes value systems justifiably more complicated in social terms. He understands, ‘value to be relational and practical, the outcome of processes of negotiation and contestation’ (1995: 5)[vi] and that must include a critical understanding about ‘the position from which descriptions of value-systems are generated, and the content of those value-systems’ (Ibid: 6). I would ask whether this is in any way possible within the current state of play in the arts/cultural sector. I believe a re-thinking and re-emphasis on the individual’s inter-relationship with the collective could, therefore, be the crucial underpinning of an alternative set of values and principles from which to understand ourselves from.

Frow argues, that, ‘ ‘the question of value’ is always involved in social struggle and continues to pose urgent political questions’, (Ibid: 4). So if a re-thinking or re-evaluation of the arts in Ireland begins with a priori assumption of equality, ‘a sort of pluralist formalism according to which all domains are taken to be of equal value’ (Ibid: 6) – within for example the arts funding process or institutionally-led discussions on the future of arts in Ireland – then any changes that are made are in keeping with the existing inequalities and challenges faced by all artists and cultural workers in Ireland.  To place this in real terms, I would cite the example of the continuing impact that both Covid-19, as well as the much publicised systemic discrimination against those seeking international protection in Ireland, has had on the arts/cultural sector. The response to these ongoing widespread social concerns has been a more concerted effort amongst funding organisations to acknowledge a lack of equality, in the form of additional funding strands and programmes that emphasise inclusivity. It is worth asking, by making streams of project funding and temporary positions accessible to a broader network of people; does it necessarily change the conditions of the existing professional field for the better? As Frow argues, ‘if the concept of culture says everything then it says nothing…It ‘repress[es] the specific apparatuses, institutions, and techniques through which subjectivity is formed’, (Ibid: 10). From the perspective of someone who mentors socially-engaged artists on radical cultures of care[vii], I see the same problems of time management, individuals being over-used and under-resourced, stress and burn out, in relation to some of those that have availed of these new opportunities.

This brings me back to the question of the functionality of institutions and the notion of sustainability and here I mean sustainability in terms of the artist as well as the project. If the system is now solely organised, as Relyea argues, around ‘the temporary project’, then there is, arguably, no space currently being offered for the concept of the collective or for any sense of long-term sustainability.

Conclusion: Is it possible that the category of artist can still be political?

When it comes to us as individuals asking ourselves the question, ‘Where are we and who are we in the art world?’ there are alternative options for us. Firstly, there are other ways of framing our needs within social struggles that can create critical space for a broader collective sense of solidarity. For example, social ecologist, Murray Bookchin, cautions against complying with exclusionary Marxist classificatory social determinants. He argues:

Workers have always been more than mere proletarians. [They] are also parents who are concerned about the future of their children, men and women who are concerned about their dignity, autonomy, and growth as human beings, neighbours who are concerned about their community, and empathetic people who were concerned with social justice, civic rights, and freedom. Today, in addition to these very noneconomic issues, they have every reason to be concerned about ecological problems, the rights of minorities and women, their own loss of political and social power, and the growth of the centralized state — problems that are not specific to a particular class and that cannot be resolved within the walls of factories[viii].

Not all artists will choose a political path within their practice yet all can relate to some of the common human needs that Bookchin’s description refers to. This thinking moves quite far beyond what neoliberal ideologies carried by neomanagerial policy makers in the arts and cultural sector allow us to assume in terms of assigning a value to ourselves. Political philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis also offers a critical understanding of the individual in relation to the collective, or social, that entirely counters current neoliberal concepts of individualism within a competitive market. His ‘Project of Autonomy’[ix] outlines a social organisational structure that is led by the premise that the autonomy of the individual is entirely dependent upon the autonomy of the collective or society and vice versa. There is no such concept of autonomy if this is not in play. Castoriadis offers an alternative perspective on how we might tackle the inequalities within our social experience in terms of ‘re-instituting’  or ‘self-instituting’ in this sense of autonomy that involves a holistic framing of social beings that includes the integration of human needs with social needs. It involves us stepping beyond our current cultivated role of neoliberal subjects and thinking holistically in terms of creating different and nurturing social ecologies for ourselves in relation to the collective. Within the context of the arts/cultural sector it involves fostering a new kind of professional solidarity that transcends its own institutional limitations and where notions of success are recognised as being collectively accumulated[x]. As Krini Kafiris and I have argued elsewhere, change means moving our critical stance ‘beyond ways of being and seeing’ and instead focusing ‘on the [organisational] processes and structures through which we can better embody the values and practices of a future world in our collective collaborations and engagements’ (Kafiris and Olney: 2022)[xi]. Only then might we be able to ‘assume a shared set of values’ (Ibid) when placing ourselves within the concept of being part of an ‘art world’.

[i] In 2012-2015 I carried out ethnographic-led research on power dynamics and value systems within the art world. The field work was conducted at the National Sculpture Factory.

[ii] Amongst many other lines of enquiry for this research, I drew from critical theory that explored the art world’s shaping of the neoliberal subject, the artist’s relationship with institutions as well as texts that are concerned with the art and cultural worker as precariat.

[iii] Relyea, Lane (2013) Your Everyday Art World, Cambridge, MA : MIT Press.

[iv] Here, I am referencing the focus on the worker / proletariat within Marxist thinking that excludes invisible work (primarily done by women) as well other oppressive systems that cut across class structures.

[v] Kafiris, Krini and Olney, Eve (2022) Review of  Arts, Culture and Community Development Rosie R. Meade and Mae Shaw (Eds.), Policy Press, Bristol, 2021, 253 pages, ISBN-978-1-4473-4051-5 (pbk)

[vi] Frow, John, (1995) Cultural Studies and Cultural Value, Oxford University Press, UK.

[vii][vii] I am co-director of Radical Institute along with Dr Krini Kafiris. Part of our work involves mentorship that is framed within our concept of radical cultures of care. This includes a holistic approach to framing the relationship the individual has with their work practices, processes and the relational organisations and institutions. Radical cultures of care centralise the idea of self-care in direct relation to the care of the collective. https://www.thelivingcommons.com/radical-institute

[viii] http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives/bookchin/ghost2.html

[ix] Castoriadis, Cornelius, (1997) The Imaginary Institution of Society, Polity Press, City/Country Oxford, United Kingdom

[x] Relyea echoes this sentiment in his online lecture accessible here: https://youtu.be/sw2fg-E73aM

[xi] Kafiris, Krini and Olney, Eve (2022) Review of  Arts, Culture and Community Development Rosie R. Meade and Mae Shaw (Eds.), Policy Press, Bristol, 2021, 253 pages, ISBN-978-1-4473-4051-5 (pbk)

Dr Olney is a socially engaged creative producer, artist, educator and independent practice-
based researcher. She completed her practice-based PhD at the Centre for Transcultural Studies and
Media Practice (DIT), in 2012. Her praxis incorporates a social ecological ethnographic approach to
social change through collaborative creative methodologies. She has produced multiple cultural and
social projects (both nationally and internationally) that serve as activist platforms for projects
tackling precarious living conditions.

For more information on Dr Olney please see the following links

Founding member of creative social living, working, learning scheme, called The Living
Founding member of Radical Institute with Dr Krini Kafiris and co-runs Studios of Sanctuary
Artists’ Residencies in collaboration with Sample Studios / Radical Institute awarded by The
Community Foundation for Ireland.
Member of the steering group of Cork Community Land Trust (CCLT).
Member of r.a.g.e., a feminist creative collective that challenges patriarchal social structures,
inequality and injustices towards women and marginalised individuals and social groups.
Projects include: LIVING COMMONS: RECONFIGURING THE SOCIAL 2020-2021, (Irish Arts Council
funded): a multi-programmed collaborative, participatory art scheme.
SPARE ROOM 2019 (funded by Irish Arts Council) : Co-producer with artist Kate O’Shea
Inhabiting the Bageion: Architecture as Critique, 2017: Irish/Athenian social arts project, (self-
funded and CULTURE Ireland funded)
Her latest publications can be found in the art research journal Passepartout New Infrastructures:
Performative Infrastructures in the Art Field
, 2020, and the book, Enlightenment and Ecology – The
Legacy of Murray Bookchin in the 21st Century
, published by Black Rose Books, 2021.

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