Everyone is Not an Artist: Autonomous Art Meets the Neoliberal City

Winter 2014 / Summer 2015


The crisis of neoliberal urbanism and its production of polarised, fragmentary and exclusionary cities is explored as an effect of the biopolitical schema of the ‘milieu’: a schema, Foucault claims, by which the ‘pastorate of souls’ is converted into the depersonalised collective ‘population’, and life is elevated and protected as an autonomous value but also degraded as fungible commodity. Within this, the historical function of aesthetics and its increasingly central role within urbanism and urban government is interrogated, from modernist architecture’s attempts to design the entire ‘anthrogeographic’ terrain, to community art, creative regeneration schemes and parks, and public and site specific artworks.

The article explores the parallel between the securitising effects of the urban capitalist milieu, which acts to fix life within normative bandwidths, and the implications of artistic autonomy that strives to return to the everyday, thus fixing all life within the bandwidth of aesthetics. The contemporary and officially sanctioned use of relational or participatory art projects in particular within the UK’s zones of ‘regenicide’ - generally, condemned social housing - is read as paradigmatic of biopower’s contradictory elevation and degradation of life. If crisis capitalism targets housing - the ultimate structure of care - as a last means of surplus value extraction, then autonomous art, through its pursuit of the sites and spaces of everyday life, finds itself on a collision course with the trajectory of economic development.

The article makes a reading of how it is precisely through autonomous art’s universal exoneration of life (encapsulated by Joseph Beuy’s slogan ‘everyone an artist!’) that it becomes amenable to the opposite use: a propaganda tool for gentrification by which housing can be withdrawn and life rendered naked and exposed to the relentless forces of the market. In this way, the intricate and fundamental relationship between biopolitics and autonomous art is exposed.

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