Times and Places of Critique
Today, at the tail end of the long moment of euphoric neoliberalism, the shape of art criticism—and more broadly, cultural critique—is both over-determined and agitated by rapid economic and cultural shifts that have yet to hit their discursive bottom. For, while neoliberalism can be understood in a similar manner to Neil Smith’s description of Jürgen Habermas’s diagnosis of modernism—“dead but dominant”1—it still holds sway as a cultural logic and as a dense force against which all cultural discussion (even if it aims outside of politics) inevitably reverberates. This is simply the historical relationship of any cultural discourse, and any making of culture, to the array of mediations that culture both takes shape within and alters through its own insistence and bursts of imagination. Yet, in the long and troubled relationship of culture to the economic, the embedding of the economic into the cultural (in intensified and perhaps even novel ways characteristic of today) has produced new dynamics.
An affective economy in which value and counter-values are continually measured alongside literal surplus value signals a more profound entangling of art and other creative practices into a world administered through a logic of ownership, a valorization of singularity, a worshipping of surplus value, and a denigration of nonconformist senses of value. While the social revolution of neoliberalism is incomplete, as Habermas said of modernity, it has created a revolution within culture by molding the economic into a mediation between all levels of life. In this sense, the economic has come to occupy the position of culture as the process that holds together the “relationships between elements in a whole way of life,” as Raymond Williams famously defined culture in The Long Revolution.2 The economic has also opened itself, in unprecedented ways, to discursive dissection and aesthetic analysis.
Yet these shifts, and the assertion of the economic as the mediating process of the relationships of everyday life, have cohered into a dynamic set of pressures on cultural critique and art criticism that are both globalized and highly localized. This global-local logic, once the defining aspect of culture within globalization, is now central to neoliberalism as a commonsense and migrating form of governance. Locally, the pressures of neoliberal transformation (in the lead up to and wake of the 2010 Olympics) in Vancouver have amalgamated a new set of expectations, contexts, and possibilities for art criticism in the city and beyond. Art criticism and critical discourse is at an extremely potent or even bloated moment in Vancouver. Even in its modest scale, art and criticality have been drawn into a war of values in Vancouver as the city looks to rebrand itself within the nexus of “creative cities” globally. This public transformation is mostly driven by private initiatives, “visions,” and power configurations, and it involves the becoming “public” of art at a time characterized by the privatization of public space and goods. Yet the publicness of art is both subtly and heavily mediated through the coherence of civic and urban developers’ dreams of the city—a historical configuration of urbanism in Vancouver. The transformation of the texture and “livability” of the city over the last twenty years is intensifying precisely at the moment where the public-private sphere (the public-private partnerships, or 3Ps, which both replace and overlap the public sphere) is becoming more brittle and sterile in terms of democratic processes and more remotely shaped by what Leslie Sklair calls a “transnational capitalist class.”3 In this we can also see a smoothing out of the texture of art and other cultural production even as enticements (through funding structures) call for art to be more public and to occupy spaces produced by a complex deal with urban developers that trades off built and marketable space for public art funding. In a curious zero-sum game of space (following the myth that Vancouver has a set amount of space), space for art is produced as a by-product of another “Vancouverism,” postmodern residential towers carefully placed so as not to block the view of our timeless commodity, nature.
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About the Author
Jeff Derksen is a cultural critic and poet who teaches at Simon Fraser University. His writing on art and culture has appeared in Springerin, Hunch, C Magazine, and Open Letter, among other publications. He is the author of Annihilated Time: Poetry and Other Politics (Talonbooks, 2009) and After Euphoria: art / space / neoliberalism (ECU Press and JRP Ringier, forthcoming). Derksen was a research fellow at the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics, CUNY Graduate Centre, New York, and is a founding member of the Kootenay School of Writing. Under the name Urban Subjects, he collaborates with Sabine Bitter and Helmut Weber on curatorial projects and visual research.